An Overview of Asthenopia (Eye Strain)

Do you struggle with tired, achy eyes?

Woman touching eye
Jonathan Knowles
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Asthenopia (eye strain) is a feeling that your eyes are tired, sore, or achy. You can feel this way after reading or looking at a computer or phone screen for a long time. This sensation develops due to prolonged use of the muscles that control your eye movements and your pupils (the dark circles of your eyes).

You may also be more prone to eye strain if you have dry eyes or if you don't use corrective lenses for your vision problem. Typically, resting your eyes and making sure your eyes are in good health should alleviate eye strain. A number of practical solutions, such as adjusting the glare on your computer screen or adjusting your room lighting can help too.

Symptoms

Anyone can experience eye strain. It is a fairly common problem in children and adults of all ages. Eye strain produces a number of symptoms. You might feel the effects while you are still reading or looking at a screen. Sometimes, you may not notice these symptoms until after you take a break from what you are doing.

The effects usually last for a few minutes, but they can persist for hours after you finish what you were doing. If you experience frequent eye strain without taking breaks, you can start to develop the symptoms more frequently. And instead of beginning after hours of using your eyes, the symptoms may start right away, as soon as you use your eyes for close vision.

Common symptoms of eye strain include:

  • Eye soreness
  • Eye pain
  • Dry eyes
  • Squinting
  • Headaches, especially around your eyes and forehead
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Sleepiness
  • Photophobia (light sensitivity)
  • Dizziness
  • Blurred vision
  • Burning eyes
  • Difficulty reading
  • Poor concentration

Eye strain is generally a temporary condition that improves on its own. It does not permanently harm your eyes or affect your vision. Nevertheless, it is bothersome, so it is a good idea to avoid eye strain whenever you can.

You may also experience neck pain and shoulder pain when you have eye strain—this is because the physical positions that lead to eye strain can also cause muscle strain in your body.

Causes

Eye strain occurs after long periods of intensely focusing your eyes. Activities such as reading, driving, or working on a tiny craft or project can lead to eye strain.

Electronics and Eye Strain

Frequent use of smartphones and other handheld electronic devices may lead to asthenopia symptoms. Surfing the Internet or reading text messages or emails can be extremely taxing to the visual system, as the eyes must strain to read the small fonts and the blue light can be bothersome.

Students who spend hours reading up close or working on a computer up close can experience eye strain. And people who work at a computer all day can develop this problem. Professionals, such as radiologists, lawyers, and accountants who complete daily intensive reading for hours on end may develop significant eye strain.

But it isn't just working that leads to eye strain, playing video games can cause it too. In fact, not only does intensely focusing your eyes cause eye strain, rapidly moving them back and forth can cause it too.

Risk Factors

Anyone can get eye strain, but vision deficits can increase the risk of eye strain. Some eye conditions can make the effects of eye strain more noticeable and bothersome.

Vision deficits make it harder for you to focus your eyes, and your eye muscles will literally strain as you concentrate on small font or print. And when the vision in your eyes is unequal, the effort it takes to focus both of your eyes can cause eye strain.

If you are prone to headaches, photophobia, or if you have dry eye syndrome, your eyes may be more sensitive to the discomfort of eye strain.

Eye Muscles and Eye Strain

There are a number of muscles that help you focus your eyes. These muscles, like any muscles, can become exhausted, resulting in eye fatigue.

Ciliary muscles move your pupils—constricting them (making them smaller) for close vision and dilating them (making them larger) for far away vision.

Moving your eyes back and forth rapidly, such as when playing a video game, exhausts your extraocular muscles that move your eyes from side to side and up and down.

Looking at small print or font is exhausting for anyone, and it is even more strenuous on your eye muscles if your vision is impaired (and you aren't using corrective lenses).

Diagnosis

If your symptoms are obviously caused by focusing on screens, words, or small objects and then relieved with a few minutes of rest, then you probably have eye strain. You might have a vision deficit, however, and your vision can improve with correction.

If you have other symptoms, such as nausea or severe eye pain, you may need diagnostic tests, which can rule out other problems.

Diagnostic Tests

There are several tests your doctor can use to determine whether you have another condition besides eye strain.

  • Eye exam: An eye exam includes vision testing and involves a detailed examination of the structure of your eyes using non-invasive devices, such as an ophthalmoscope.
  • Brain imaging: If there is a concern that you could have a structural problem of the brain, you may need to have a brain computerized tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test.

Differential Diagnosis

There are several conditions that can produce symptoms similar to those of eye strain, including:

Migraines: If you have eye pain, fatigue, headaches, photophobia, and irritability, you could have migraines. While migraines can be triggered by eye strain, they tend to last longer than the effects of eye strain. And they usually don't improve by resting your eyes.

Tension headaches: These headaches feel like pressure on your forehead and around the back of your head and they can lead to pain behind your eyes. Tension headaches can be accompanied by eye strain. These headaches typically improve with over-the-counter pain relievers like Advil (ibuprofen) and Tylenol (acetaminophen), but eye strain usually does not.

Fatigue: Exhaustion, sleepiness, and feeling worn out can make you want to just close your eyes. Usually, these symptoms are relieved by rest and sleeping, while eye strain is relieved by resting your eyes.

Viral conjunctivitis: Also referred to as pink eye, this common condition is highly contagious. With viral conjunctivitis, the white part of your eyes appear pink, you develop crustiness around your eyes and eyelids, and your eyes feel very itchy and possibly painful.

Treatment

There is not a medication or procedure that can relieve eye strain. However, there are a number of useful strategies you can use to manage it.

Methods of managing eye strain include:

  • Rest your eyes: When you feel eye strain coming on, or even if it is at its worst, just close your eyes for a few seconds. Or give your eyes a break by looking at something that isn't so small or detailed.
  • Lighting: Use proper lighting when you are reading or working. This can be easy to ignore because you may feel comfortable in the dark—but the effects of eye strain can come on later.
  • Computer and phone screens: Set your screens so that you have enough contrast to comfortably read, but make sure that the light isn't too bright for your eyes.
  • Font size: Adjust the font size on your phone or computer. A font that is too small can be hard to see, while large font fills up too much space on the screen, making it cumbersome to read large documents. And be sure to use a clear font without too many hard to read squiggles whenever you can.
  • Taking breaks: If you have to do tasks that require prolonged reading, or looking at tiny objects, consider looking away every 20 minutes or so. You can close your eyes or look at something far away to give your eye muscles a rest. This shouldn't interfere with your productivity, and it may even help you refocus on the big picture of the project every once in a while.
  • Correction for vision problems: If eye strain is a major problem for you, it could be due to a vision problem. Be sure to make an appointment to have your eyes and vision checked.

A Word From Verywell

Eye strain is fairly common. If you are a student, or if you have a job that leads to eye strain, you will benefit from adopting habits that give your eyes a rest. And your vision can change over the years, so regular eye exams can identify undiagnosed vision problems—correction of vision problems is often the key to relief if you have eye strain.

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