Ever found yourself at the office focusing on a computer screen for long periods? There’s a chance you’ve had to deal with the effects of eye strain or dry eyes.
Although these conditions share similar symptoms, they are quite different. In this post, we take a deeper look at the differences between dry eyes vs. eye strain.
But first, let’s start with a quick reminder of the symptoms and causes of dry eyes and eye strain.
What Is Dry Eyes?
Dry eye syndrome, more commonly known as dry eyes, is a condition that affects the eye’s ability to lubricate itself using tears. The eye might be unable to produce tears.
Sometimes, the layers of tear film covering the eye might not operate well enough. When this happens, it renders the tears ineffective.
Changes to lifestyle and habits can often help treat dry eyes. However, people suffering from chronic dry eyes because of an underlying condition may need medical treatment.
Dry Eyes Symptoms
Although it’s not usually difficult to treat the symptoms of dry eye syndrome, they can still vary in severity from person to person.
While most symptoms can be a minor nuisance, some can be unpleasant. If you suffer from dry eyes, you may experience one or more of the following symptoms:
- Dry, gritty feeling in and around the eyes, like having something in your eye
- Red, tired-looking eyes
- Hot, burning sensation in the eyes
- Stringy mucus in and/or around the eyes
- Blurry vision or difficulty focusing
- Sensitivity to light
- Discomfort or irritation when wearing contact lenses
- Wet, watery eyes
Dry Eye Causes
Often, dry eyes is the result of preventable lifestyle risk factors like working in air-conditioned environments or spending long hours in front of screens.
However, it’s possible for the underlying cause of dry eyes to be an underlying condition. Below are some common causes of dry eyes:
- Blinking less often, such as when focusing on a screen, driving, or reading a book
- Low humidity levels in the air – this causes the tears in the eyes to evaporate faster
- Smoke – cigarette smokers are at greater risk of dry eyes; second-hand smoke is also a risk factor
- Windy conditions
- Eye allergies
- Some medications including some antidepressants and blood pressure medications
- Underlying medical conditions, in particular autoimmune conditions like Sjogren's syndrome or arthritis – these are particularly common causes of chronic dry eye as they directly affect glands responsible for tear production
- Eye surgeries, such as LASIK and cataract surgery
- Nutrient deficiencies such as lack of vitamin A
What Is Eye Strain
Eye strain is common – over two-thirds of people in the US report eye strain symptoms. While not usually serious, it can still impact daily tasks.
Many of the causes of eye strain are rooted in everyday activities, meaning that simple lifestyle changes can help treat the condition.
One type of eye strain, digital eye strain, results from prolonged use of digital devices such as computers, phones, or TVs.
Eye Strain Symptoms
The symptoms of eye strain can vary in severity and time frame and aren’t always restricted to the eye area. You can also experience eye strain in one eye, or both simultaneously. Symptoms can include:
- Tired, heavy eyelids
- Burning sensation in the eyes
- Itchy, blurry eyes
- Sensitivity to light
- Difficulty focusing on objects
- Headache and migraine – eye strain and migraines are not necessarily linked but for some people, eye strain can be a migraine trigger
- Pain in the neck, shoulders, back, or a combination of these
- Watery or dry eyes
- Spasms or twitching around the eye and eyelids – usually from prolonged eye muscle strain
Eye Strain Causes
Most of the time, eye strain is caused by intense and prolonged focus on an object, usually a screen. It can also occur for other reasons. Common causes of eye strain include:
- Doing tasks requiring intense focus for extended periods such as driving, using screens, or writing or that require fine detail like painting, sewing, or knitting
- Screens that have poor contrast or are too bright in low-light conditions
- Carrying out tasks in low lighting
- Not blinking often enough (usually due to intense focus on an object)
Differences Between Dry Eyes and Eye Strain
As we’ve seen, dry eyes and eye strain share some similar symptoms and causes. However, there are some notable differences between them.
Eye strain doesn’t directly affect the tear film
One key difference between eye strain and dry eyes is how each affects the workings of the eye itself.
An area of the eye affected by dry eye is the layers of tear film on the surface of the eye. The three layers of tear film consist of an oily layer, an aqueous layer, and a mucus layer.
The tear film allow tears to stick to the eye and prevents them from evaporating too quickly. This allows the surface of the eye to remain lubricated.
Eye strain doesn’t affect the tear film layers.
Eye strain and dry eyes affect tear production in different ways
Much like the tear film, tears are a vital component for keeping your eyes lubricated and healthy.
A gland called the lacrimal gland produces tears. People suffering from dry eye may have issues with this gland. This leads to either not enough tears produced, or too many.
Eye strain doesn’t affect the production of tears in this way.
Dry eye syndrome can be a symptom of an autoimmune disease
As we have seen, eye strain is not a serious condition and it’s easy to treat, usually with eye rest.
While we can treat dry eye in similar ways, it isn’t always this easy. Autoimmune diseases such as Sjogren’s syndrome, arthritis, and lupus affect the glands involved in keeping the eye lubricated.
This means that while people with dry eye can manage their symptoms with various lifestyle changes and treatments, it will persist alongside the underlying condition.
Eye strain won’t lead to permanent eye damage
Much like sore feet from a long day standing or walking, eye strain is uncomfortable but not a cause for concern. If you find your eyes feeling strained, resting them will provide relief.
Some people suffer from severe or chronic dry eye. These forms of dry eye present more severe, prolonged symptoms. Left untreated, these symptoms can lead over time to permanent eye damage.
Even in less severe dry eyes, the lack of proper lubrication of the eye surface can lead to damage to the cornea and ulcers. It may also lead to eye infections.
Important: While eye strain is benign, seeing a medical specialist if symptoms persist is important to determine the cause.
Can eye strain cause dry eyes?
While eye strain and dry eyes share many similar causes and symptoms, eye strain is not a cause of dry eye syndrome.
Can dry eyes cause eye strain?
Some dry eye symptoms, like blurred vision, make it more difficult to focus on objects. This creates extra strain on the eyes, with the possibility of leading to other symptoms like an eye strain headache.
Can you have both eye strain and dry eyes?
You can have both conditions at the same time. You may develop them by spending long hours in front of screens. A diet low in nutrients for your eyes can compound the problem.
How can you reduce eye strain?
To reduce and prevent eye strain you can:
- Ensure good lighting when carrying out tasks
- Quit smoking
- Remember to blink often when using screens or reading
- Use a humidifier to increase the air humidity in your room
- Maintain a good posture when using your computer and phone
- Follow the 20-20-20 rule when using screens to allow your eyes to relax – take a break every 20 minutes and look at an object 20 feet away for 20 seconds
Do eye strain glasses work?
Eye strain glasses are also known as blue-light glasses. Their purpose is to protect you from “blue light” when using screens.
A recent study from the University of Melbourne found there are no benefits to their use. To date, no scientific proof exists of their benefits.
The Wrap Up
Eye strain and dry eye syndrome share similar causes and symptoms but also differ. Overall, eye strain is less serious and the symptoms are often more short-lived than those of dry eye.
Most people experience eye strain from computer use and excessive screen time. This makes it far more treatable and much less of a concern.
If you have dry eye symptoms, it’s important to see a medical professional to see what’s behind them, especially if these are severe or persistent.
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