How Your Computer Use Can Trigger Headaches

Start by identifying the source of your pain

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It's hard to imagine life without a computer. Whether it's our constant need to check email, the hours we spend browsing the Internet and checking social media, 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
  • Excess illumination
  • Poor posture

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

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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, both of which can trigger a headache.

Alleviating Computer-Related Eyestrain

Most cases of computer-related eyestrain do not require medical intervention but can instead be alleviated by adopting new prevention practices.

To reduce computer-related eyestrain, follow the "20-20-20 rule" endorsed by the American Optometric Society. Every 20 minutes, simply stop and take a 20-second break to view something 20 feet away.

Moreover, it's a good idea to rest your eyes completely for 15 minutes after two hours of continuous computer use.

If you're referring to a 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.

Excess Illumination

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.

Correcting Illumination Problems

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

  • Turn down the overhead lights to reduce glare.
  • Use drapes on windows and lower wattage light bulbs.
  • If you're working on an older-style CRT monitor, a glare filter that attaches to the front of your screen may also help.

If your workplace doesn't provide adjustable lighting, particularly for overhead fluorescents, adjust the brightness and contrast settings on your computer monitor.

Poor Posture

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

Correcting Poor Posture

There are things you can do things to improve your posture, both in terms of the position of your furniture and the way you consciously correct bad habits.

To improve your posture, position your keyboard and computer so that your head is not tilted and your spine is neutral. The center of the screen should be about four to five inches below eye level and 20 to 28 inches from the eye.

A few more tips:

  • 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.

Other Possible Causes

Many people will claim that "radiation" or "cathode rays" are the cause of computer-related headaches, but neither actually applies. Radiation levels from computers are no more or less different than those from your flat-screen TV and cathode rays essentially went out with vacuum tube TVs of yore. Still, there are things to consider.

Electromagnetic Fields

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.

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.

Patterns and Images

Interestingly, there is no strong evidence that the actual images on a computer screen trigger headaches.

While some patterns on the screen (such as 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.

If you suspect that screen patterns are triggering your headaches, speak with your doctor as this may be a sign of photosensitive epilepsy. Alternately, ocular migraines are typically preceded by flashing lights and visual patterns.

Other Explanations

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 you are getting the proper care.

Headaches Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

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Article 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. American Optometric Society. Computer vision syndrome. 2019.

  2. Mohammadianinejad SE, Babaei M, Nazari P. The effects of exposure to low frequency electromagnetic fields in the treatment of migraine headache: a cohort study. Electron Physician. 2016;8(12):3445-3449. doi:10.19082/3445

  3. Hoffmann J, Recober A. Migraine and triggers: post hoc ergo propter hoc?. Curr Pain Headache Rep. 2013;17(10):370. doi:10.1007/s11916-013-0370-7

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