An Overview of Eye Strain (Asthenopia)

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Asthenopia is eye strain. When you have eye strain, you may feel like your eyes are tired, sore, or achy. Reading or looking at a screen for a long time can make you feel this way.

This feeling happens after prolonged use of muscles in your eyes. This includes the muscles that make your eyes move and that control your pupils, or the dark centers of your eyes.

Some people may be more prone to eye strain. People with dry eyes may have eye strain more often. People who have a vision problem but don't wear glasses or contact lenses may also experience more eye strain.

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

Symptoms of Eye Strain

You may feel eye strain while you are reading or looking at a screen. 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.

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 twitching
  • Photophobia, or light sensitivity

Eye strain is usually temporary. It should improve on its own. Eye strain does not permanently harm your eyes or affect your vision. It can be annoying, though. It is always a good idea to avoid eye strain if you can.

You may have neck pain and shoulder pain with eye strain. This may be because the way you sit can cause muscle strain.

Causes of Eye Strain

A number of muscles help you focus your eyes. Like any muscles, they can become tired. This can lead to eye fatigue.

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. 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.

Looking at small print or a small font is exhausting for anyone. It is even harder on your eye muscles if you need corrective lenses but aren't using them.

Diagnosis of Eye Strain

If your symptoms go away after a few minutes of rest, 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.

Several conditions can produce symptoms similar to those of eye strain. These include:

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.

Tension headaches can be accompanied by eye strain. These headaches typically improve with over-the-counter pain relievers like Advil (ibuprofen) and Tylenol (acetaminophen). These medicines do not usually help eye strain, though.

Fatigue

Exhaustion and sleepiness can make you want to close your eyes. Usually, these symptoms are relieved by rest and sleeping. Eye strain is relieved by just resting your eyes.

Viral Conjunctivitis

Also called pink eye, viral conjunctivitis is highly contagious. When you have this common condition, the white parts of your eyes appear pink. You will also develop crustiness around your eyes and eyelids. Your eyes may feel itchy and possibly painful.

Recap

Some conditions may have symptoms that are similar to eye strain. These include certain kinds of headaches, fatigue, and pink eye.

Treatment for Eye Strain

No medication or procedure can relieve eye strain. You can learn useful strategies for managing it, though.

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.

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. If you have other symptoms like nausea or severe eye pain, you may have another condition. See your healthcare provider. An eye exam can help diagnose vision problems and other conditions. 

The best treatment for eye strain is to rest your eyes. You can also prevent eye strain by changing the light in your room, adjusting screen brightness and font sizes, and wearing corrective lenses if you need them. 

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.

Was this page helpful?
4 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. Updated August 7, 2018.

  4. The Migraine Trust. Common triggers.

Additional Reading