A Lifetime of Sight: Healthy Eyes for Work and Play, Part 1


If General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler could make cars the way God makes eyes, you would never see a foreign-made auto on American highways. For no matter how much you use your eyes to read, watch TV, or do crossword puzzles, you cannot wear them out.

Legend has it that Galileo’s vision deteriorated after years of looking through the telescope he invented. It was purely coincidental. His vision deteriorated as he got older. It happens to many people whether or not they spend hours looking through a telescope. Saying that you can wear out your eyes by seeing through them is like saying that you can wear out a window by looking out it.

If, for example, corneas were not meant to last as long as the body they were issued to—and quite often longer—they would not be able to be reused for transplant surgery after the original owner’s death. Of course, even the most carefully made piece of machinery can break down if it is abused. And while there are many ways to abuse and damage your eyes, reading is not one of them.

Up Close and Personal: Tired Eyes

But what about eye fatigue or eyestrain, we hear you ask. Doesn’t that prove that too much reading will wear out my eyes?

No. Even though eyestrain is usually associated with reading or doing other close work, it does not damage the eye. It just tires the eye.

To be more accurate, it’s not the eye itself that gets tired or strained, but the muscles around the eye. Move your eyes back and forth or up and down repeatedly for a long period of time and the muscles controlling them react the same way that the ones controlling your feet do after running a marathon. They ache.

When you focus on something very close, you are flexing the muscles that adjust the lens inside your eye. That also requires muscular work.

The amount of work—muscular tension—increases as the quality of the working conditions decreases. It is easier to read in a well-lit room than in a dim one, for example, and easier to read while sitting or standing still than while driving over a bumpy road. It’s also easier to read when you are rested than when you are tired. And if you need reading glasses, it is easier to read while wearing them than it is to try to read without them.

These may sound like self-evident rules, but you’d be amazed at the number of people who need glasses but refuse to wear them while they read in dimly lit rooms—and then complain about how bad their eyes are and how terrible the suffering is that they have to go through.

It’s a lot like the old joke: This guy goes to see his doctor, and while he’s talking to him he, lifts his right arm as high as it will go, and then twists it behind his own back until he can grab the back of his pants. By the time he has hold of his pants he is literally doubled over in pain.

“Doctor,” he says, “Every time I do this it hurts.”

“Very interesting,” says the doctor, studying the strange and obviously painful shape his patient had contorted himself into. “Have you ever considered not doing it?”

The same applies to eyestrain. It can be avoided. But if you forget to avoid it, it will disappear anyway.

How to Ease the Strain

As a rule, you do the same things to treat eyestrain as you do to avoid it—you remove the cause. Here are some ways to do just that.

If you are in bright sunlight, wear sunglasses. If you don’t have any, at least wear a hat with a wide enough brim to shade your eyes. If you have both, wear both.

Avoid reading for any length of time in a car or other moving vehicle, especially if the movement is rough or jerky. You should also avoid reading while lying flat on your back or propped up on an elbow If you like to read in bed, use a pillow or two so you can read sitting up.

Make sure you have adequate light for whatever it is you are doing—sewing, reading, or doing any other close work.

Don’t get too far away or too close to the work you are doing. If you’re reading, the book or paper should generally be between 16 and 21 inches away from your eyes—depending on what you personally find comfortable—and a little bit below eye level. It’s easier to read while looking down than while looking up.

If you already have eyestrain and are looking for relief, stop using your eyes. Put your head back and your feet up and close your eyes for a few moments. Dim the lights. Put a damp washcloth over your eyes. Relax. And don’t worry about it.

When the muscles in your legs ache, it doesn’t mean that you have damaged your legs. It means that you have used them and they need a rest. Once they’ve rested, they’ll be ready to go again. It’s the same with your eyes.

The Proper Way to Watch TV

Television is another area of concern. While it’s often said half-jokingly that watching too much TV may permanently damage the brain, there is no scientific evidence that it will do the same to your eyes—or even to your children’s eyes. But as with reading, sewing, and other close work, you can develop eyestrain if you don’t watch TV properly. What is the best way to watch TV? First make sure that you have a clear and sharp picture that isn’t vibrating or jumping around. And while a TV set might make a great night-light in an otherwise dark room, if you’re actually going to be watching it you may be more comfortable if other lights in the room are on. Soft, indirect lighting is best. Just make sure that it doesn’t reflect off the screen into your eyes. Glare is one of the most common causes of eyestrain.

How far you sit from the screen is a matter of personal taste and comfort, as is the size of the screen. But be aware of your own vision needs. Remember, the closer you sit the harder your eye muscles will have to work to focus on the screen. Another concern about sitting too close is seeing too much: All the distortions and interference become more obvious and aggravating.

You don’t have to have your eyes glued to the set. It’s like keeping your muscles flexed all the time. Eventually they get tired, and they let you know they are tired by aching. So let your eyes wander from time to time. Who knows? You might even find something or someone more interesting to look at.

You should also place the TV so the screen is at eye level and straight in front of you. Looking at a TV screen from off to one side just makes the picture appear distorted, and that speeds up eyestrain.

Now, if you do all of this and still get frequent “television headaches,” the problem may not be eyestrain but something more serious. See your doctor. And by the way, the TV set didn’t cause the problem.

Can Color TV Zap Your Eyes?

Back when color TVs were first starting to become popular, there was a great deal of public concern about the x-rays they emitted. Those concerns were valid, because the Bureau of Radiological Health eventually announced controls and standards for TV picture tubes.

No TV set was allowed to emit more than 0.5 milliroentgen per hour, even under the most adverse operating conditions. Every set manufactured since January 15, 1970, has had to carry a label certifying its compliance with that standard. To ensure compliance, the bureau randomly spot-checks TV sets from various manufacturers on a regular basis. In addition, TV repair people can use x-ray detectors to determine if sets are emitting too much radiation.

Although the labeling was not required until 1970, the vast majority of TV sets were meeting those requirements by the end of 1968. If you have an old color TV set manufactured before then, you can have a TV repair shop check it out.

Although stringent limits were set, color TV x-ray radiation was never considered a serious problem. The dosages were small. But the long-term effects of low-level radiation can be harmful.

By the way, black-and-white TV sets do not produce x-rays strong enough to make it out of the picture tube.

Computers: A Special Problem?

Half of all computer users complain of tired eyes, blurred vision, light sensitivity, tearing, and red eyes.

What is responsible? Do these conditions present any real hazards? Could even more serious problems develop later, after years and years of computer use?

So far, there is no evidence that video display terminals (VDTs) cause any kind of eye damage. The American Academy of Ophthalmology and the National Research Council consider VDTs to be safe for normal use. There is no evidence that they cause cataracts or damage the eyes in any other way. We also know that they do not emit any hazardous amounts of radiation.

There is no doubt, however, that VDTs do produce eyestrain. After all, you are concentrating on the screen for long hours. Now while it’s true that people also spend long hours concentrating on books, as a rule, books do not:

  • Reflect light or glare directly into the eyes
  • Emit their own light
  • Flicker and shimmy

This is why eye complaints are among the most important concerns of both occupational health experts and the entire computer industry.

There is a big difference between straining the eyes and actually damaging them. But straining the eye muscles in front of a VDT can be as serious a medical problem as straining any other muscles, especially because they are the muscles you need to use every day at work.

Spending long hours at a VDT—whether for programming, word processing, running a spread sheet, or playing computer games—translates into hours of intense reading and concentration in front of an illuminated, flickering screen. The eyes get quite a workout tracking the words, symbols, numbers, or other figures, and from jumping back and forth between different parts of the video display. Temporary discomfort and vision problems are frequently the result.

But the screen is not the only culprit. Quite often the rest of the office is as much to blame as the computer.

Many offices were not designed with VDTs in mind. The desks are not the right height to allow for comfortable viewing of the screen or operation of the keyboard. The style of the chair makes it awkward to get close enough to the desk, the screen, or the keyboard.

The way the furniture and equipment are arranged, the location of the electrical outlets, the type of lighting being used—all of these can make using a computer a physically draining and demanding experience.

If the physiological problems don’t get you, maybe the psychological ones will. Many workers cannot adjust to the technological revolution and the new innovations of the modern working environment. They are used to doing the same things the same way they have always done them. They don’t like change. Some will fight it—sometimes overtly and sometimes covertly. Sometimes they won’t even realize that they are fighting it.

Some workers also have an underlying fear of being replaced by a computer. Many of those fears may be well founded.

But regardless of the type of concern they have, and whether or not it is justified, such worry causes stress. And stress can be focused, or manifest itself, in particular parts of the body—often in the eyes.

Changing the color of computer screens or making them more “friendly” in other ways will not have much effect on people who are opposed to change in general, and technological change in particular. If people are afraid that they will be replaced by a computer, the model, style, and features of the computer that replaces them are moot points. For some people, the only solution to “computer-induced eyestrain” is a session with a psychologist.

But a great deal of actual computer-associated eyestrain can be corrected and alleviated by changing the computer, the office itself, or even the desk or chair you use.

Getting Comfortable with Your VDT

The desk or table should be large enough to hold the computer and any other equipment, paperwork, or supplies you need to keep handy. Keyboards should be set at a comfortable height—usually below normal desktop level. The chair should feel comfortable, provide good back support, and make it easy to reach the keyboard.

The screen itself should be between 16 and 21 inches away from your eyes—depending on what is comfortable for you personally. If a computer station is going to be used by a number of different people, eash person who uses it should be able to make adjustments so that the screen is a comfortable distance away.

If there is any sort of clip or board to hold material that is to be typed, it should be placed next to the screen. That way you don’t have to constantly change your focus or move your head too much as you read and type.

Room lighting is a major consideration, too, or at least it should be. Many find fluorescent lights both harsh and annoying. Soft lights that minimize shadows and glare but adequately illuminate reading matter are probably the best for preventing tired eyes. Glare of any kind will quickly produce fatigue and discomfort in many individuals.

Indoor glare may result from the use of unshielded light bulbs or improperly placed light sources. This can be avoided by the use of indirect lighting. Avoid having a single strong source of light in an otherwise dark room. Bright light against a dark background can very quickly lead to eye fatigue.

The final word on VDTs is not in yet. We still do not have a good standardized method to measure eye fatigue. But we do know that many VDT users suffer eye discomfort and visual fatigue beyond what is expected in a normal workplace.

Why? We don’t know—yet. And we won’t know until more research has been done.

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