How Your Computer May Cause a Headache

What You Can Do to Manage the Pain


It's hard to imagine life without a computer. Whether it's our constant need to check email, the hours we spend surfing the Internet, or a quest to master a video game, staring at a computer monitor has become a part of everyday life for many of us. But if you're wondering why the days that you used to spend happily typing away at your keyboard have been replaced with bouts of unexplained headaches, you're not alone.

That's because time staring at your computer screen may be triggering headaches for reasons related to the following:

  • Eyestrain
  • Illumination
  • Poor Posture
  • Electromagnetic Field Exposure

Let's learn more about these headache triggers and the strategies you can undertake to alleviate or cope with them.

Eyestrain and Focusing as a Headache Trigger

While you might think the act of focusing on a screen is a straightforward process, it's not as simple as it sounds. The distance between the front of a monitor and our eyes is called the working distance. Interestingly, our eyes actually want to relax at a point that's farther away from the screen. We call that location the resting point of accommodation (RPA).

In order to see what's on the screen, the brain has to direct our eye muscles to constantly readjust focus between the RPA and the front of the screen. This "struggle" between where our eyes want to focus and where they should be focused can lead to eyestrain and eye fatigue, which can eventually trigger a headache.

Alleviating Headaches Triggered by Computer Screens

There are a couple things you can do to help alleviate headaches triggered by eyestrain and focusing:

  • According to the American Optometric Society, in order to avoid computer (or any digital) eyestrain, you should follow the 20-20-20 rule, which means taking a 20-second break to view something 20 feet away every 20 minutes. In addition, it's a good idea to rest your eyes completely for fifteen minutes after two hours of continuous computer use.
  • If you're referring to text on paper while working at the computer, don't put the paper down next to your keyboard. Prop the page up next to your monitor so that there is less distance for your eyes to travel between the paper and monitor, less refocusing and fewer chances for eyestrain.
  • Obtain regular eye care. While you may not need eyeglasses for everyday activities, you can benefit from wearing prescription glasses when using your computer.

Illumination as a Headache Trigger

Computer-related headaches can also be triggered by working in a bright environment. The lighting in many office spaces includes sun-filled windows, overhead fluorescent lights, and desk lamps. In addition, you may not only be dealing with the glare from your computer but also the glare from every other computer in the room. This kind of excessive brightness or over-illumination can trigger several types of headaches, including migraines.

Alleviating Headaches Triggered by Illumination

You may find that reducing the illumination can make a big difference in the frequency of your headaches:

  • Try turning the overhead lights down when you're working at the computer to avoid glare.
  • Use drapes on windows and replace light bulbs on desk lamps with ones of lower wattage
  • If your work setting doesn't allow for you to easily adjust the room lighting or where you sit, try adjusting the brightness and contrast settings on your computer monitor.
  • If you're working on an older-style CRT monitor, a glare filter that attaches to the front of your screen may also help.

Patterns and Images

Interestingly, there's no strong evidence that the actual images on a computer screen trigger headache. While some patterns on the screen (e.g., bright lights on a dark background, flashing shapes, or specific line patterns) may trigger headaches in a small percentage of people with neurological deficits, the typical patterns we look at on the screen are not usually responsible. However, if you feel that screen patterns seem to be triggering your headaches, consult with your doctor immediately.

Posture as a Headache Trigger

Do you find yourself hunched over or leaning into your computer screen when a headache comes on? If so, your poor posture might be the cause of your headache. Poor cervical neck curvature is a common observation in computer-users who complain of headaches.

Alleviating Headaches Triggered by Posture

You can also do things on your own to maintain proper posture:

  • Check the position of your shoulders while typing and try to relax them. Adjust your monitor angle and height so that you are not over-engaging your neck muscles to see.
  • Do not rest your wrists on the keyboard when typing.
  • Be certain your desk chair is well padded and comfortable. Adjust the height of the chair so your feet rest flat on the floor. Lastly, if your desk chair has arms, be sure they actually support your arms while you are typing.
  • Position your keyboard and work equipment so that they're at a comfortable distance. The computer screen should be about four to five inches below eye level (as measured from the center of the screen) and 20 to 28 inches from the eye.

Electromagnetic Field Exposure

Research is emerging that exposure to low radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (RF-EMF) through the use of cell phones and Wi-Fi may be linked to more frequent and more severe migraine headaches. That said, the scientific evidence is still early and not conclusive. Moreover, some experts suspect that people who are exposed to more RF-EMF tend to have more stress, and stress is a known migraine trigger. Overall, the precise link between EMF and migraines is unclear. Still, restricting unnecessary exposure to RF-EMF sources is a reasonable goal, especially if you link the exposure to more severe headaches.

Other Work or Computer-Related Headaches

Before you blame your headaches entirely on working at the computer, keep in mind that other things in your environment that coincide with computer use may actually be triggering your headaches.

Ask yourself:

  • Is the material that you are producing on the computer stress-inducing?
  • Are you more likely to consume caffeine while at the computer?
  • Is your diet irregular when you're doing computer work?
  • Are you less active and taking infrequent breaks from your work when typing?

A Word From Verywell

While your computer may be a trigger for your headaches, it's important to consult with your doctor regarding your headache diagnosis. This way you can be sure to you are getting the proper care.

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