How the 20-20-20 Rule Can Help Ease Digital Eye Strain

Digital eye strain caused by too much screen time is a real thing, experts say. Here's how to ease the dry eyes, redness, and fatigue.

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Sitting in front of a computer all day can take a serious toll on your eyes. From dry eyes and redness to general eye fatigue, these conditions impact the best of us. And as it turns out, there's a formal name for such computer-related eye challenges. It's called digital eye strain, according to a new study.

"Digital eye strain exists—this is a real thing," Mina Massaro-Giordano, MD, co-director of the Penn Dry Eye & Ocular Surface Center and a professor of clinical ophthalmology at the University of Pennsylvania, told Health.

The good news is that research has confirmed a simple solution that can help ward off digital eye strain. It's a technique that has been dubbed the "20-20-20 rule" and it involves taking a break from your screen every 20 minutes, while looking at least 20 feet into the distance for 20 seconds.

Here's a closer look at the 20-20-20 rule, why it's so effective, and how to implement it.

What Is Digital Eye Strain Exactly?

Digital eye strain, which is also known as computer vision syndrome, is a term used to describe a group of eye- and vision-related issues that happen after using a computer, tablet, e-reader or phone for long periods of time, according to the American Optometric Association (AOA). Those who spend two or more continuous hours a day looking at screens face the greatest risk of developing digital eye strain, according to the AOA.

The impact on your eyes is triggered by the fact that you have to work harder when looking at screens. Letters on digital screens usually aren't as precise or sharply defined as they are on a page. In addition, the level of contrast between the digital letters and the background is reduced, which can make viewing more challenging—even if you don't actually perceive it that way.

"Spending hours on the computer without breaks and wearing the wrong prescription glasses for the working distance of a computer" can also lead to digital eye strain, Vivian Shibayama, OD, an optometrist at UCLA Health told Health.

According to the AOA, some of the primary symptoms of digital eye strain are headaches, blurred vision and dry eyes

"It feels like your eyes are tired, heavy, and like there is often a gritty sensation in the eyes," Rudolph Wagner, MD, clinical professor in the department of ophthalmology & visual science at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, told Health.

New Research Confirms Effectiveness of 20-20-20 Rule

For the new study, which was published in the journal Contact Lens & Anterior Eye, researchers recruited 29 people who experienced eye strain and had them use special computer software that monitored the direction of their gaze every few seconds. Every 20 minutes, the software flashed a message asking study participants to take a break for 20 seconds while looking at a target 20 feet away. The message stayed on the computer screens until participants actually took a break and looked away.

Researchers also took note of participants' symptoms before the two-week study, and checked them again one week after the study. What they discovered is that eye strain symptoms like dryness, sensitivity, and pain noticeably improved after the two weeks.

"Enabling the 20-20-20 rule reminders had a significant impact on how participants used their computers," the researchers wrote, noting that participants took more breaks during the day. These breaks, researchers concluded, likely helped ease the participant's digital eye strain symptoms.

Why Does The 20-20-20 Rule Work?

The 20-20-20 rule is thought to help address and ease digital eye strain in a few different ways. To begin with, it simply gives your eyes a break, Phillip Yuhas, OD, an assistant professor at The Ohio State University College of Optometry, told Health.

"Pointing your eyes at a screen and engaging the focusing mechanism necessary to keep the screen…clear takes energy" Yuhas said.

What's more, giving the neurological pathways and the muscles that help your eyes focus, a much needed break, is like "letting your arm and chest muscles rest between sets on the bench press," Yuhas said.

The 20-20-20 rule also encourages blinking—something that people tend to do less of when looking at screens. "Each blink helps refresh the tear film on the ocular surface," Yuhas said. "The more blinks that one makes, the healthier his or her tears will likely be and the more comfortable computer work will become."

Tips for Implementing the 20-20-20 Technique

The study used special software that's not available to the general public right now, but experts say it is still entirely possible to implement the 20-20-20 rule on your own.

If you're struggling with digital eye strain, Shibayama recommends setting a timer alert for every 20 minutes and then shifting your gaze when it goes off. If possible, "work next to a window so you can refocus your eyes outside at a distance for a bit, making a point to stand up and walk around," she said.

There are also phone apps like Eye Care 20 20 20 that will ping users when it's time to do the 20-20-20 rule, Yuhas said, adding that he strongly recommends patients either use an app or an alarm. "Patients will typically not implement the 20-20-20 on their own," he said. "Most good habits require a reminder, at least initially."

If you've tried this and you're still struggling with digital eye strain, Dr. Massaro-Giordano suggested it may be time to see an eye doctor. You may be dealing with another issue, like dry eyes or you may even need vision correction such as glasses or contacts, Dr. Massaro-Gieordano said. But you won't know unless you get checked out.

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