Symptoms of Eye Strain

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Eye strain is caused by using your eyes for a long time to focus on something, such as when using a computer or smartphone screen, reading a book, driving, or doing close-up work such as sewing. It is not serious, but it can be annoying.

Eye strain also can occur if you have trouble seeing something due to a vision problem and your eyes are working extra hard to see clearly. The things you want to see may appear blurry as your eyes strain and work harder.

As people spend more time on electronic devices, eye strain has increased. Eye strain associated with electronic devices is called computer vision syndrome or digital eye strain. You may also hear eye strain referred to as eye fatigue, asthenopia, or tired eyes.

Sometimes, eye strain indicates the need for a new prescription for glasses or contact lenses. It also can indicate that your eyes are aging, which happens in middle age as you develop presbyopia (age-related loss of close-up vision).

Man with a computer and phone holding glasses and experiencing eye strain.

Prostock-Studio / Getty Images

Frequent Symptoms

Here are some of the most frequent symptoms of eye strain:

  • Dry eye: Dry eye is when your eyes do not have enough tears or the tears the eyes make are not the right kind. When you experience eye strain, you may develop dry eye because you aren’t blinking enough. Normally, humans blink 15 times a minute. However, when using an electronic device, that blinking can decrease to five to seven times a minute.
  • Excessive tearing: Ironically, you can have watery, tearing eyes while you have dry eyes. Excessive tearing is the way that your eyes try to respond to irritation, fatigue, or certain underlying health conditions.
  • Burning, itchy eyes: Burning and itchiness are other symptoms your eyes develop to respond to eye fatigue. Burning and itchiness also may develop in the eyes due to eye allergies, and you could experience these symptoms because of simultaneous eye strain and allergies.
  • Blurred vision or double vision: When your eyes get dry, your tear film evaporates and the quality of your vision can be impacted. Many people complain about filmy, foggy, fluctuating vision that improves with a forced blink, a tell-tale sign of dry eyes/computer vision syndrome.
  • Headache: Sometimes, eye strain is associated with having a mild headache.
  • Problems concentrating: It can be hard to concentrate on reading, watching a video, driving, or doing any other close-up task when you experience eye strain.
  • Neck and shoulder pain: Think of your body posture when you are using your phone, a computer, or even while driving. You may find yourself hunched over or extending your neck and shoulders in a certain way to see better. This can lead to pain in those areas.

Rare Symptoms

The symptoms associated with eye strain also can indicate other health problems. Eye strain on its own is not serious, but here are some eye-related symptoms that may indicate a more serious problem beyond eye strain:

  • A bad headache or migraine: Although some people may have a mild headache along with eye strain, a severe headache usually indicates another problem. Additionally, headache is not a common symptom of eye strain in younger children.
  • Redness and swelling of the eye and eyelids: These are not typically associated with eye strain. These are more likely to indicate inflammation or an infection.
  • Extreme sensitivity to light: Although your eyes may feel a little more sensitive to light when you experience eye strain, extreme sensitivity to light is not that common.

Complications

Eye strain is sometimes irritating enough that you have problems focusing on your work and you feel more fatigued in general.

While not caused by eye strain, sometimes eye strain can indicate another problem with your eyes. These may include:

  • A vision problem that needs correction: Eye strain may be a symptom of uncorrected farsightedness (problems seeing things that are close up), nearsightedness (problems seeing things at a distance), or astigmatism (an imperfection of the eye’s lens that makes things look blurry). You may need an updated prescription for glasses or contact lenses.
  • Normal changes of the eye through aging, such as presbyopia: Presbyopia is when your eyes lose the ability to focus on things that are close up.
  • Dry eye that has causes beyond eye strain: Although dry eye is a symptom of eye strain, it also can have many other causes. For instance, you may use a medication that makes dry eye worse, or you may notice your dry eye symptoms even more when you are on an electronic device or driving.

When to See a Doctor

Most of the time, you don’t need to see an eye doctor for eye strain. However, some signs indicate that an eye exam may help to alleviate your symptoms.

  • Your symptoms are significant and have an impact on your ability to get work done.
  • You suspect that you need a new prescription for glasses or contact lenses. For instance, maybe you now have trouble reading text that is on your phone that you were once able to read with your current prescription or you were previously able to read without any eye-related prescription.
  • You have persistent headaches along with your eye strain symptoms.
  • You make changes to your work environment but continue to have eye strain symptoms. For example, you may make an effort to blink more frequently or adjust your body positioning while you work. Even with these changes, you continue to experience eye strain.

A Word From Verywell

Although eye strain is not usually serious, it can be annoying enough to prompt some changes to your workspace to try and alleviate it, such as blinking more often, looking away occasionally from your work, adjusting your work space, and using over-the-counter artificial tears.

If you make these types of changes and still experience eye strain, consider contacting an eye doctor for an exam.

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10 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. Cleveland Clinic. Eye strain. Updated August 6, 2019.

  2. American Optometric Association. Computer vision syndrome.

  3. American Academy of Ophthalmology. What is dry eye?

  4. American Academy of Ophthalmology. Computers, digital devices, and eye strain.

  5. American Academy of Ophthalmology. The tearing patient: diagnosis and management.

  6. Cleveland Clinic. Itchy, red eyes? How to tell if it’s allergies or an infection.

  7. Stanford Health Care. Eye strain symptoms.

  8. American Academy of Ophthalmology. Eye strain: how to prevent tired eyes.

  9. American Migraine Foundation. Do I need to have my eyes checked if my head hurts?

  10. American Academy of Ophthalmology. What is presbyopia?