Increased PC usage brings new syndrome

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 April, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 April, 2001, 12:00am

The growing usage of computers in our lives - at work, at home and in our palms - has not only increased the instance of repetitive strain injury (RSI), it has given rise to a newer, lesser-known complaint called Computer Vision Syndrome.

The time people spend sitting in front of a computer and gazing at the screen has given rise to eyestrain, fatigue, blurred vision, and dry eyes, along with head, neck, and back aches, say some eye specialists in the United States.

Although some symptoms overlap, RSI and Computer Vision Syndrome are driven by different habits.

For office workers, RSI is the price of poor posture while sitting at a desk and typing for hours on end, whereas Computer Vision Syndrome partly results from constantly using your eyes to look at computer screens, which reflect the glare of sunlight and florescent lights, forcing you to strain to see the images.

The issue of eyestrain from working at computers, which leads to other body aches, has not been as widely reported as RSI. Although the American Optometric Association (AOA) recognises Computer Vision Syndrome, a leading United States expert, optometrist James Sheedy, says he knows of few Asian eye care specialists who practice in this field.

Mr Sheedy, who first started working on the issue in 1985, has made an effort to spread the word in the United States and Canada. 'It's a large problem and the eye care providers are typically not well versed in ergonomics and work lighting,' he said.

'It is starting to become commonly accepted, even outside of the eye care [industry].'

The AOA has cited surveys that show eye and vision problems crop up in 70 to 75 per cent of computer workers. Various eye and vision problems experienced during computer use are lumped together under the phrase Computer Vision Syndrome.

Unlike RSI, which can cause serious bodily damage in extreme cases, Computer Vision Syndrome just gives you a pain in the eyes, Mr Sheedy said from his California home.

'We're not damaging the eyes by working at a computer,' he said. 'We're causing a lot of discomfort.'

However, he adds that there is quite a bit of evidence that points to the development of myopia - or short-sightedness - in people who spend too much time looking at things which are basically within arm's length.

Also, there has been evidence that Computer Vision Syndrome can crop up in children who spend too much time at the computer, according to Web site, which compiles information on ergonomic issues.

Problems that can lead to Computer Vision Syndrome include simple overwork and a fixed gaze when looking at a screen. 'Research has shown that when people work at a computer, their blink rate is only one third [of normal],' Mr Sheedy said. That contributes to dry eyes, which can be also irritated by pollutants in the office air.

A situation that contributes to eyestrain includes bright lights, such as sunlight or florescent lights, in your peripheral vision. For example, if you use your hand to shield your eyes like a baseball cap visor, can you see your screen more clearly? Then use a file folder to prevent the overhead light or sunlight from hitting your computer screen, Mr Sheedy suggested.

Another big problem is improper location of the monitor. The centre of the screen should be about 10-20 centimetres lower than the eyes, which naturally gaze downward.

Also, higher-quality computer screens are much more comfortable to read, he added.

In Hong Kong, a company called Freetech sells a computer screen cleaner called TechniClean, which it promotes as an aid to reduce Computer Vision Syndrome. Mr Sheedy said that in theory, dirt or fingerprints could add to eyestrain, but there have been few studies on the quality of images.

The problem is costing companies and patients money. Mr Sheedy cited a survey of 4,000 US optometrists, which found that one in seven patients had computer-related complaints. The study, completed about five years ago, estimated that the cost of eye examinations and special glasses to help computer workers cost about US$1.9 billion a year.

'Whatever we can do to improve quality, people can performer faster and are more comfortable,' Mr Sheedy said.


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