An Overview of Eye Strain (Asthenopia)

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Eye strain (asthenopia) is when your eyes become tired, sore, or achy after focusing on a task like crafting or reading for too long. Prolonged use of the muscles that make your eyes move and control how much light gets in causes them to fatigue, which is what leads to these symptoms.

Eye strain has especially become a concern with the heavy use of smartphones, tablets, and other such devices. Eye fatigue related to use of these items is called digital eye strain.

Eye strain is usually temporary and should improve on its own if the eyes are given a chance to rest. Eye strain does not permanently harm your eyes or affect your vision.

This article discusses eye strain and its causes. It also discusses the diagnosis and treatment of eye strain.

eye strain symptoms

Verywell / Alex Dos Diaz

Eye Strain Symptoms

Symptoms of eye strain include:

  • Eye pain
  • Dry eyes
  • Itching or burning eyes
  • Squinting
  • Headaches, especially around your eyes and forehead
  • Blurred or doubled vision
  • Poor concentration
  • Eye twitch
  • Photophobia, or light sensitivity

You may feel eye strain after you've spent a long time doing a visual activity like reading a book or playing a computer game. Sometimes you may not notice until you stop what you are doing.

The effects of eye strain usually only last a short while. At times, though, symptoms can last for several hours.

If you often have eye strain and you don't take breaks, you may develop symptoms faster and more often. You may start feeling eye strain right after starting an activity instead of hours later.

If you have other symptoms like nausea or severe eye pain, you may have another condition. See your healthcare provider.

What Causes Eye Strain?

Eye strain happens when the muscles that focus your eyes become tired.

Ciliary muscles change the shape of the lens in your eye. They bend the lens in different ways so that you can focus on near or far objects. Eye strain occurs after long periods of using these muscles. Activities that can cause eye strain include:

  • Reading
  • Driving
  • Working on a tiny craft or project

Smartphones and other handheld electronic devices can also cause eye strain. Small fonts and blue light can be hard on the eyes.

When you move your eyes rapidly, it exhausts your extraocular muscles. These are the muscles that move your eyes from side to side and up and down. Playing video games can cause this kind of eye strain.

Risk Factors For Eye Strain

Anyone can get eye strain. It is common in children and adults of all ages. Some people may be more prone to eye strain, including:

  • Students who spend hours reading or working on a computer
  • People who work at a computer all day
  • People in jobs that require a lot of reading

People with vision problems are also more at risk—especially if they need vision correction, such as glasses or contact lenses, but don't use it. These problems include:

Vision problems make it harder for you to focus your eyes. When you have these problems, your eye muscles will strain to focus. The effort to focus both eyes when one is worse than the other can also cause eye strain.

People with dry eye disease, or a lack of sufficient moisture in the eyes, are also more likely to have eye strain. The same is true for those who are exhausted or do not get enough sleep.

Diagnosis of Eye Strain

If your symptoms go away after a few minutes of resting your eyes, you probably have eye strain. If this happens frequently, you may have a problem with your vision. Corrective lenses like glasses or contacts can help.

Additional symptoms like nausea or severe eye pain may indicate a different health problem. Your healthcare provider may want to do tests to find the cause of your symptoms.

An eye exam is more than just vision testing. Your healthcare provider will also look at the structure of your eyes with eye examination devices such as an ophthalmoscope.

Other Possible Diagnoses

The following conditions are associated with eye strain, but are unique diagnoses that may benefit from additional treatment.

  • Migraines: If you have eye pain, fatigue, headaches, photophobia, and irritability, you could have migraines. Migraines can be triggered by eye strain, but they tend to last longer. They also don't improve with eye rest.
  • Tension headaches: Tension headaches feel like pressure on your forehead and around the back of your head. They can lead to pain behind your eyes, as well as eye strain.
  • Viral conjunctivitis: Also called pink eye, viral conjunctivitis is highly contagious. When you have this common infection, the white parts of your eyes appear pink. You will also develop crustiness around your eyes and eyelids. You may have eyestrain, and your eyes may feel itchy and possibly painful.

Treatment for Eye Strain

No medication or procedure can relieve eye strain. However, resting your eyes, being aware of your environment when performing a task, making adjustments to digital devices, and getting your vision corrected (if needed) can help you manage it.

Rest Your Eyes

When you feel eye strain coming on, close your eyes for a few seconds. This can even help when your eye strain is severe.

If you perform tasks that require long periods of reading or looking at tiny objects, take breaks. Look away every 20 minutes or so. Try closing your eyes or focusing on something at a distance.

Change the Light

Always work or read in good light. Even if dim light seems fine to you, it could cause eye strain later on.

Adjust Computers and Phones

Set your screen so it is just bright enough. The contrast should be comfortable for reading. When working at a computer, sit an arm's length from the screen.

Many electronic devices have modes that display warmer colors that cause less eye strain than blue lights. Look for a setting called "color temperature" or "nighttime mode" to make nighttime reading easier.

Also, adjust the font size on your phone or computer. A font that is too small can be hard to see. A large font takes up too much space on the screen, making it hard to read large documents. Use a clear, easy-to-read font.

Have Your Vision Problem Corrected

If you have frequent eye strain, you could have a vision problem. Make an appointment to have your eyes checked.

Summary

Eye strain is common. It is caused by overuse of the eye muscles. Symptoms include dry eyes, eye pain, headaches, and blurry vision.

Reading, driving, or looking at small things up close can cause eye strain. Using screens and playing video games can also contribute. Eye strain is common in people who have uncorrected vision problems.

If your eyes feel better with rest, you probably have eye strain. Giving your eyes a rest from constant focus can help.

A Word From Verywell

Eye strain is fairly common. Still, you may benefit from adopting habits that give your eyes a rest.

Remember that your vision can change over the years. Regular eye exams can identify and correct vision problems. Ultimately, this can help relieve eye strain.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why do my eyes feel heavy?

    Common reasons for eyes that feel heavy are dry eyes and eye allergies. Eyes that feel heavy can also be a sign that you need more sleep.

  • Do blue light glasses prevent eye strain?

    To date, there's not enough research to support this. However, there are anecdotal reports of people who say blue light glasses are helpful in reducing their eye strain.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Stanford Health Care. Eye strain symptoms.

  2. Sheppard AL, Wolffsohn JS. Digital eye strain: prevalence, measurement and amelioration. BMJ Open Ophthalmol. 2018;3(1):e000146. doi:10.1136/bmjophth-2018-000146

  3. Cleveland Clinic. Migraine headaches.

  4. The Migraine Trust. Common triggers.

  5. American Academy of Ophthalmology. What causes eyelids to feel so heavy?

  6. Lawrenson JG, Hull CC, Downie LE. The effect of blue-light blocking spectacle lenses on visual performance, macular health and the sleep-wake cycle: a systematic review of the literature. Ophthalmic Physiol Opt. 2017;37(6):644-654. doi:10.1111/opo.12406

Additional Reading

By Troy Bedinghaus, OD
Troy L. Bedinghaus, OD, board-certified optometric physician, owns Lakewood Family Eye Care in Florida. He is an active member of the American Optometric Association.