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Eyestrain and Computers

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Dear Dr. Levister:

I spend 5 to 7 hours in front of a computer screen. At the end of the workday my eyes are tired and teary. What are the long-term risks of developing eye problems? G.P.

Dear G.P. By 2005 some 100 million people will be working at video display terminals (VDTs), and that does not include those who use computers at home. Many people who spend their workdays in front of terminals suffer from eyestrain (visual fatigue, headache, eye irritation, and similar symptoms).

But some studies show that these problems were judged no worse than those caused by any close work and were not unique to video display terminals. However, recent clinical findings at The School of Optometry at the University of California, Berkley, suggests that working regularly at a VDT may cause a premature loss in the eye’s ability to focus.

Dr. James Sheedy, chief of the VDT clinic at the university, emphasized that his evidence was preliminary and that his conclusions were based on people who had come to the clinic with eye problems -- not a controlled study. Still, of 153 patients who averaged six hours a day at a computer terminal for four or more years, more than half had difficulty changing focus. Presbyopia, or loss of ability to focus with advancing age, accounted for half of these problems.

The other patients, though, were in their twenties and thirties and should have had good focusing mechanisms. Eyeglasses corrected the problem. A 2000 study of 1300 so-called computer geeks who worked long hours at start-up companies during the dot-com boom revealed similar optical problems. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, eye problems associated with VDT use is a relatively new phenomenon.

The Academy predicts a host of eye related medical problems as computer use increases. The conclusion is: if you work at a computer screen, you should have your eyes checked annually. (And when you do, tell your eye care professional that you work at a screen.) If you already have corrective lenses, you may need a special prescription for work at a terminal. Regular reading glasses and bifocals may not be well suited for VDT work.

Choose nonreflective glass screens, and eliminate reflective glare from windows or light fixtures. New flat and large screens may offer some protection. Keep the reference document as close to the screen as possible and at the same level, so that you needn’t change reading focus as you work. Keep the screen ten to fifteen inches below the straight-ahead eye position. Take regular breaks -- fifteen minutes every hour or two to perform other work. Frequently look away from the screen to rest your eyes momentarily.

Dr. Levister welcomes reader mail concerning their body but regrets that he is not able to answer individual letters. Your letters will be incorporated into the column as space permits. You may direct your letters to Dr. Levister in care of Black Voice News, P.O. Box 1581, Riverside, CA 92502.

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