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9 Tips to Prevent Eye Strain While Reading

by Michael Healy
preventing eye strain

There’s nothing quite like curling up with a great book. On the other hand, there’s nothing quite as frustrating as not being able to finish your current chapter because your eyes are strained, watery, and feeling tired and achy.

Eye strain, also known as digital eye strain or computer vision syndrome, is a widespread issue that often affects those who spend long hours reading or working on computer screens.

According to the American Optometric Association, an estimated 60% of American adults report experiencing eye strain on a regular basis. The same report found that over 80% of children aged 10-17 also report frequent symptoms of eye strain, but most often after extended use of a digital device.

The most common symptoms of eye strain

Eye strain, by definition, is a range of painful or uncomfortable symptoms that occur as a result of the eyes being overexerted. While eye strain is most often associated with reading or staring at a digital screen, it’s also common to experience eye strain after driving for extended periods of time (especially at night) or working on any type of activity that requires intense or prolonged use of your eyes.

The most common symptoms of eye strain include:

  • Burning or itchy eyes
  • Dry or watery eyes
  • Blurred vision
  • Double vision
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Headache
  • Soreness in your neck, shoulders, or back
  • Feeling like your eyes are tired or you can’t keep them open.

Tips for preventing eye strain while reading

While eye strain can be frustrating and annoying, the good news is that it’s typically not a serious condition and will usually go away after taking steps to alleviate your symptoms. It is important to note that you should seek the advice of your eye doctor if your eye strain symptoms do not go away with the typical and recommended self-care tips offered below.

In order to prevent eye strain, optometrists recommend the following:

  1. Use proper lighting
    One of the most important factors in preventing eye strain while reading is having proper lighting. Avoid reading in dim or overly bright rooms, as this can strain your eyes. Ideally, you should have a combination of ambient light and task lighting. Use a reading lamp with a warm, soft light that is directed onto the page or screen, and avoid glare from windows or other light sources.

  2. Adjust your reading distance
    Position your reading material at a comfortable distance from your eyes. Holding it too close or too far away can strain your eyes. The recommended distance is about 16 to 18 inches from your eyes, or at a distance that feels natural and comfortable to you.

  3. Adjust your screen settings
    If you are reading on a screen, such as a computer, tablet, or e-reader, adjust the settings to reduce eye strain. Increase the text size, adjust the brightness to a comfortable level, and choose a font that is easy to read. You can also reduce blue light emission by using a blue light filter or enabling night mode on your devices.

  4. Follow the 20-20-20 rule
    Reading for prolonged periods without taking breaks can strain your eyes.  One way to prevent eye strain is by taking regular breaks to give your eyes a rest. One technique to help with this is the 20-20-20 rule. 

    The 20-20-20 rule is a simple technique that can be practiced anywhere and can help reduce eye strain. Every 20 minutes, take a 20-second break and look at something 20 feet away. This allows your eyes to relax and readjust their focus, reducing the strain caused by staring at a screen or page for extended periods.

  5. Blink regularly (and more than you are right now!)
    Blinking is the body’s natural way of keeping your eyes lubricated and preventing dryness, especially when reading for long periods. Blinking helps to distribute tears across the surface of your eyes, keeping them moist and reducing the risk of eye strain. Make a conscious effort to blink regularly while reading to keep your eyes hydrated.

    Some find it helpful to increase blinking while observing the 20-20-20 rule helps to further reduce the symptoms associated with eye strain.

  6. Practice good posture
    While it’s nice to read in bed or when you’re lounging on the couch, poor posture can strain your neck, shoulders, and eyes while reading. Chiropractors and eye doctors agree that it’s best to practice good posture while reading.

    By good posture, experts indicate that, while reading, you should be sitting up straight, keeping your head straight (avoiding tilting your head at an angle, keeping your book or digital device slightly below eye level (to prevent leaning or slouching forward), and whenever possible, sitting in a chair that allows your feet to rest flat on the floor.

  7. Use artificial tears
    If you experience dryness or discomfort while reading, it helps to use artificial tears or lubricating eye drops to keep your eyes moist. These drops can help reduce eye strain and alleviate dry eye, itching, and redness that are often associated with eye strain.

  8. Consider using readers
    Using readers, also known as reading glasses, can also be an effective solution for alleviating eye strain caused by presbyopia, a common age-related condition where the eye’s ability to focus up close diminishes. Reading glasses provide magnification, making it easier for the eyes to focus on close-up text or objects without straining.

    Readers come in various styles and strengths, typically ranging from +1.00 to +3.00, and can be purchased over the counter or with a prescription from an eye care professional. By wearing readers when reading or working on close-up tasks, you can usually reduce eye strain and discomfort associated with blurred vision, squinting, or headaches.

    However, if you take the reader route, it’s still important to get a proper eye examination to ensure the correct strength. Using the wrong strength of readers may not effectively address the eye strain and could potentially cause further discomfort.

  9. Get regular eye exams
    Whether you wear readers or not, regular eye exams are essential for maintaining good eye health and for preventing eye strain. An eye exam can detect any underlying eye conditions that may contribute to eye strain, such as refractive errors or dry eye syndrome. Your eye doctor can also provide personalized recommendations for preventing eye strain based on your eye health and reading habits.

The future of eye strain

Considering the rapid transition to digital content and our increasing reliance on digital devices, especially our smartphones, it’s safe to assume that more and more people will continue to experience eye strain.

Fortunately, using the information provided above, you should be able to identify and correct symptoms related to eye strain caused by reading or using your digital device. As with any medical issue, if you notice your eye strain symptoms do not seem to be improving, make a point to discuss this with your eye care professional.

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