Eyestrain headache
November 5, 2011 11:57 AM   Subscribe

I keep getting headaches from looking at computer screens.

About once a week (perhaps), I get rather vicious headaches from looking at computer or smart phone screens for long periods of time. The only thing that seems to make these go away is the passage of time -- I can try to go to sleep, though it can be hard to get to sleep with a headache, and it probably takes closer to 24 hrs than 8 hrs to make it go away.

Usually it feels like an aching in the lower part of my forehead, and the pain often radiates downwards toward my eye. It is not infrequent that I feel a rather excruciating pain coming from my eyeball itself (more often the left eyeball than the right).

Is there anything I can do about this?


My computer, a Windows Vista laptop, is currently set to have ClearType activated. The refresh rate is 60 Hz, though the drop-down menu doesn't list any other options. (Common suggestions from Google are activating ClearType and making the refresh rate higher, though I've read that refresh rate means more or less nothing with regard to LCD screens as opposed to CRT.) My cell phone, an LG Optimus V that has a rather unsharp screen (I'm comparing this to an iPhone, iPod Touch, and a T-Mobile MyTouch), may also be significantly contributing to the eye strain.

The obvious answer is to simply stop looking at screens for so long. I'll try (but sometimes I need to). I'm looking for any less-obvious answer.

posted by lewedswiver to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You should get your eyes checked by an ophthalmologist. You may either need glasses or a new glasses prescription.
posted by bleep at 12:02 PM on November 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

turn the brightness down!!! what your mother told you about reading in the dark was a lie! staring at something bright white for a long time is bad for your eyes.
posted by sexyrobot at 12:07 PM on November 5, 2011

Definitely get your eyes checked. You may need some computer glasses.
posted by Kimberly at 12:13 PM on November 5, 2011

Response by poster: I have noticed that my eyesight isn't perfect (things in the far distance get blurry), though I can pass a driver's license eye test. I basically told myself, "When I get older I'll need reading glasses, that's all," because right now I can read without needing reading glasses.

But I probably do need glasses after all. Never thought of myself as the glasses type (stupid vanity), but I'll bite the bullet and do it.

Could staring at computer screens have caused my eyesight to worsen? (I guess I would think that it comes from purely the physical structure of the lens, etc., and it couldn't be harmed by looking at one thing versus looking at another.)
posted by lewedswiver at 12:17 PM on November 5, 2011

Never thought of myself as the glasses type (stupid vanity), but I'll bite the bullet and do it.

Don't forget about the possibility of contacts!
posted by hapax_legomenon at 12:28 PM on November 5, 2011

I know several people who either do or don't otherwise wear glasses but have a specific prescription only for computer use, because monitors sit in a weird near-mid-distance. I require glasses to drive but do not wear them at a computer because it's right in my sweet spot and my glasses kind of mess that up.

Eyes are weird and glasses aren't binary. And you're getting older. And long stretches looking at a spot 12-24 inches away is weird, eyes aren't really built for that.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:31 PM on November 5, 2011

Try installing flux.
posted by empath at 12:45 PM on November 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

There are free (or cheap) utilities you can install to remind you to take a break from staring at the screen. You need to rest your eyes, just like you'd rest from any physical exertion. For general health it's also good to get up and stretch, walk around a bit, when you get that reminder.

If you're stressed at work, fixing that problem (relaxation exercises, carefully prioritizing you responsibilities if possible and so on) will also help your eyes and head.

(on preview: flux is awesome though I use it for making sure I fall asleep on time, not eyestrain :-)
posted by girlhacker at 12:51 PM on November 5, 2011

How long are you looking at screens before it becomes a headache? 1 hour? 9 hours? Are they migraines or regular headaches?
- I have a Macbook, and run this TimeOut appin the background. It reminds me to stretch, close my eyes, look away from the screen and focus at a different distance, etc. It's helped a bunch to curtail the physical effects of my ADD "hyperfocus" intensity.
- I also use this Flux software, which is apparently available for windows users too. It automatically adapts the color of your computer screen throughout the day. It looks weird for the first day or two, and now I can't stand to use my computer at night without it. It's completely genius and should be more widely used!
posted by barnone at 12:57 PM on November 5, 2011

Get your eyes checked and explain the symptoms - not just one of those walk in commoditized eye checks but someone experienced.

I am also on the computer a lot and this kind of expert diagnosis has me using two different spectacles - each set for a different distance for vision but each is perfect for its use and the inconvenience has been worth it - that is, neither bifocals nor contacts work for me.
posted by infini at 1:15 PM on November 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Could staring at computer screens have caused my eyesight to worsen? (I guess I would think that it comes from purely the physical structure of the lens, etc., and it couldn't be harmed by looking at one thing versus looking at another.)

IANAOphthalmologist, just someone who's worn glasses since she was 7, but based on memories of conversations with past eye doctors, I'd hazard that the problem is not that looking at any one thing versus another can harm one's eyes, but that when using a screen we tend to spend a lot of time staring at one point (or a very small area) at a static distance, instead of shifting our gazes to look at things that are closer and farther and off to the left or the right or above eye level or below. Some researchers think that myopia is at least partly caused by excessive close work, and the data seem to show that outdoor activity reduces the prevalence of myopia in children.

Plus one generally blinks less when using a screen, IIRC, but that's more of an immediate-discomfort thing than any kind of lasting-effect thing, I think.

Another possibility, depending on how old you are, is that you're experiencing the beginnings of presbyopia.
posted by Lexica at 1:23 PM on November 5, 2011

Check the rest of the room for bright light sources which may be competing with the screen for your attention. Try to minimize reflections from windows or other light sources which may also be competing for your attention and perhaps making your squint to see what is on the screen without you realizing it.

If you have fluorescent lighting where your laptop is, you may be sensitive to the almost imperceptible flickering from that - some people are very bothered by it and others don't notice it.
posted by juiceanddoom at 1:47 PM on November 5, 2011

Another thing to consider is your neck angle and upper back - if you're sitting in one position for hours on end, especially if it's a cramped or un-ergonomic position, that can cause muscle aches with pain that radiates around your head, neck, shoulders, back, etc.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:08 PM on November 5, 2011

Another vote here for Flux -- I get light-triggered migraines and flux has helped tremendously. I just wish I had it for my iPad.
posted by ukdanae at 2:34 PM on November 5, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for the Flux recommendations, I'm installing it now!
posted by lewedswiver at 3:20 PM on November 5, 2011

I am just a little bit farsighted and have an astigmatism. I can see perfectly well (pass vision tests, etc), but sometimes if I look at lit screens for a very long time (6+ hours), I start to get a headache. It's a very subtle effect - it took until I was 30 to really affect me enough to send me to the eye doctor.

My optometrist said that it was probably mostly the astigmatism causing the problem - backlit screens are my bete noir. Computers and LCD projectors will cause it after several hours of exposure, but old-school overhead projectors are an instant trigger.
posted by clerestory at 3:21 PM on November 5, 2011

I have 20-20 vision, but came down in 2005 with very similar symptoms after a few weeks of working on a hefty technical editing project requiring 10 hours a day looking at screens, and the problem turned out to be dry eye syndrome ("Failure to blink regularly, such as when staring at a computer screen for long periods of time, can also contribute to drying of the eyes.").

It also turns out that women are more prone to dry eye, and I apparently am in a geographic area that is known for it, also. I ended up getting punctal plugs and the problem disappeared completely.
posted by pineapple at 3:35 PM on November 5, 2011

Something else to try is increasing the display DPI setting, this will make the default text and icons larger (its usually buried under the advanced settings).
posted by Lanark at 4:52 PM on November 5, 2011

You can get a larger LCD and connect it to the laptop. It may also be easier to position it at the eye level.

Once you do get a headache, I found that a few things can help (although not always 100%): drink a glass of water, wait 40 minutes and drink another glass; eat a lot of romaine lettuce leaves and / or organic carrots; drink some light-brewed green tea (like sencha or dragonwell); do not lie down horizontally, instead sit back in a large chair so that you're in half-sitting position - spend 30-60 minutes like that, or more if needed; buy an eye mask and keep it on while waiting for headache to disappear (amazon has some good ones for about $10 with high ratings).

This may sound odd, but I've also found that making a light vegetable soup and drinking just the liquid part of it often helps against headaches.

Working at a standing desk instead of sitting down also reduces chance of headache for me.

Hope this helps. Headaches suck.
posted by rainy at 6:06 PM on November 5, 2011

I also get migraines occasionally from looking at a screen. Try adjusting the brightness and see if it helps you. Take frequent breaks and look at something far away.

Also, I needed glasses... for the first couple of years I only wore them while on the computer, but now I wear theme all the time. You mention vanity being a reason you don't want to wear glasses, but I think some people are even more attractive with flattering frames. Not sure if you're the sort to do this or not, but with inexpensive online glasses (glassyeyes.com links to several sites), you can get several pairs (I average a pair for $15-25 with no photochromic tinting and no bifocals) cheaply and color-coordinate.
posted by IndigoRain at 6:18 PM on November 5, 2011

I basically told myself, "When I get older I'll need reading glasses, that's all," because right now I can read without needing reading glasses.

Print out this page in 6 point text. Now, how close to your face can you hold the page before it blurs out?

That's how I found out I'd got older.
posted by flabdablet at 8:03 AM on November 6, 2011

Install Workrave on your PC, and nthing all the suggestions above. Workrave is an open source program that reminds you to get up and stretch at regular intervals, and includes exercises for your eyes (and the rest of your body). Also, make the default font-size bigger in all your browsers! Ctrl++ is your friend.
posted by hooray at 12:31 PM on November 6, 2011

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