Monday, August 13, 2001

Doctors say focus on eyestrain


Long computer use hurts eyes, leads to other body ailments

By John Eckberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Longer hours and more days on the job at the computer screen are adding up to increased vision fatigue and computer-related eyestrain.

        “Fifteen years ago, I used to ask my patients, "Do you have a computer?'” said Robert D. Weathers, O.D., a doctor of optometry in Westwood for 23 years.

        “Now I ask, "How long do you use a computer each day?' ”

        Experts say headaches, backaches and upper-body muscle strain are all symptoms of a growing problem in the American workplace. Time on the computer is leading to a host of health problems, and many are directly related to the body's compensation from eyestrain.

        “Computer stress syndrome is one of the fastest growing issues in the health-care industry,” Dr. Weathers said.

        “When somebody is wearing glasses or contacts for far away, then they have to work to see at a computer, that stress can cause posture changes, circulation changes, muscle tension and joint problems and the list goes on and on.”
       

Learning to see

               Millions of people who might not have needed glasses in the past could now need correction lenses because of the increased visual demands from computer use, according to the American Optometric Association and the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

        David Pannkuk, a workplace specialist and software developer based in Columbia Township near Terrace Park, thinks eye fatigue is a direct result of too many workers with untrained eyes.

        He has a software program, Eye-Q, that essentially trains the eye and brain to work together more effectively on aspects such as form recognition, ambiant or peripheral vision, and swift visual processing.

        “The program is based on the premise that you learn to see. It's not innate or a gift. The idea that the eye is a camera is ridiculous. There's a skill that can be developed called knowing how to see,” he said.

        But because the program is not made for Windows, it has languished for about five years.
       

Office vs. cow yard

               Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., found that workers who received screen alerts to take short breaks were 13 percent more accurate in their work than those who received no break. Another Cornell University study of 4,500 office workers found eyestrain to be their chief complaint.

        The problem goes far beyond focus development, however.

        “Nine of 10 computer sites are badly designed,” Mr. Pannkuk said. “You are looking straight ahead for print. That's like holding a book at arm's length and reading it.”

        Screens should be lower than the viewer's eyes, he said, with frequent short breaks so that users can focus on distance.

        “When discussing visual posture, I think of it this way. You can't walk through a cow yard looking straight ahead because you will get manure on your shoes. You look down,” he said.

        The American Optometric Association, based in St. Louis, estimates that 15 million Americans seek eye care for computer-related vision problems, said Susan Thomas, public relations specialist for the association of 33,000 optometrists and para-optometric assistants.

        “That's a 50 percent increase from 10 years ago,” she said. “It's because of more computers in the workplace and at home.

        “A growing body of evidence suggests that an increase in near work has led to an increase in myopia or nearsightedness.”
       

"Appropriate eyewear'

               The age of the computer user might not matter, either.

        “I've had retiring people who say they never work on a computer and two years later, they're on e-mail, doing family tree searches and hobbies on the computer. The evolution happens so quickly,” Dr. Weathers said.

        It is a mistake to buy reading glasses from a grocery store and use them on a computer, Dr. Weathers said.

        The glasses are probably not made for work that is 24 to 30 inches from the eyes. “The risk is that you may be making matters worse,” he said.

        Lens design, too, can be extremely important. “Fitting is significant. People need to get the appropriate eye-ware,” Dr. Weathers said.

        Gregory Kitchener, O.D., a doctor of optometry with offices in Kenwood for 25 years, has little doubt that computer use has led to a deterioration of sight.

        “There are more people tying their complaints to the use of the computer,” he said.

        Eye doctors and other experts recommend routine short breaks from staring at the video display terminal of a personal computer. People should focus on something far away — down a hallway, for instance — so eyes do not become overly acclimated to close focusing.

        “People are not well-designed for sustained near-point tasks,” Dr. Kitchener said. “We are hunters and food gatherers and were not readers. A sustained, near two-dimensional task is a bigger demand on the eyes than people realize.”

       



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