Spending many hours staring at a screen every day? You might develop an eye strain headache. Although not as debilitating as migraines, a headache due to eye strain can interfere with your activities and cause unhappiness.
The good news is that eye strain headaches are for the most part not serious. You can treat and even prevent them with a few simple changes in your life.
What Is Eye Strain?
Eye strain is not a condition in itself, but rather a symptom of a problem. It can have various causes and manifestations.
Some people complain of tired eyes, others experience blurry vision or watery eyes. Sometimes, a frustrating headache may accompany these symptoms.
What Causes Eye Strain?
Eye strain is associated with focusing your eyes on something for prolonged periods. In our days, that something is usually a screen of some type.
The term digital eye strain is increasingly used today to describe the effects on the eyes of using a computer or phone screen for hours. And without taking a break, which is what aggravates the eye strain.
It’s not just about digital screens, though. Reading a book or driving for hours can also cause eye strain.
The most common eye strain causes are:
- Dry eyes – your eyes become dry as you blink less when looking at a screen
- Your digital devices have glare or reflection
- You look at the screen at less than the recommended distance (or angle)
- The contrast on your devices is less than optimal
Digital eye strain or computer vision syndrome, as the American Optometric Association calls it, is more serious than eye strain. Symptoms are worse and last for longer.
What Is an Eye Strain Headache?
Simply put, it’s a headache that appears when you focus your eyes too much on a single task.
When you keep your eyes on a screen or other objects at close range, the muscles that control eye activity need to work harder. This refers to the muscles inside your eyes as well as to those around them.
Just as with any other muscles in your body, that sustained effort will tire your eye muscles.
Do the muscles in your arms or legs hurt after a strenuous workout? So will the muscles that control your eyes. And in some cases, you will perceive this as a headache.
Eye Strain Headache Symptoms
The headache is only one of the symptoms caused by eye strain. It can be mild, or severe enough to disrupt your daily activities. One way to tell if yours is a headache due to eye strain is to look for other symptoms associated with eye strain:
- Burning or itchy eyes
- Watery eyes or dry eyes
- Sore eyes, with pain increasing when you apply pressure to them
- Tired eyes, to the point that you cannot keep them open anymore
- Sore muscles in the neck, shoulders, or upper back
- Increased sensitivity to bright lights
- Trouble concentrating
Eye Strain Headache Location
It’s hard to pinpoint a specific eye strain headache location, as the problem is more complex and doesn’t concern just the eyes. If the muscles in and around the eyes are tired, it’s natural to feel a bit sore in that area. Your forehead will hurt as well.
On the other hand, you need to keep in mind that activities like reading or staring at a screen do not affect only the eyes.
The position of your head and your posture can also cause significant discomfort. If you bend your head to look at the phone in your hand for a prolonged time, the strain in your neck can cause a throbbing pain at the back of your head.
You’ll perceive it as a headache, though it’s more of a referred pain that stems from the neck muscles.
Eyestrain Headache Treatment
There is no medical treatment for eye strain headache. To get rid of it, you only need to make a few changes to your routine.
Of course, you can take aspirin or whatever OTC pain reliever you normally use to alleviate the headache. Changing your habits will prevent such headaches from appearing in the future.
Immediate Relief for Eye Strain Headache
Besides taking a pain reliever, you need to address the cause of the headache and eye strain and rest your eyes.
- Rest in a dark place, keeping your eyes closed for a few minutes.
- Apply a cold towel to your forehead. If cold compresses don’t work for you, try a warm one.
- Massage your forehead, temples, neck, and shoulders.
- Drink plenty of water.
Preventing Eye Strain Headaches
Prevention is the best medicine. Here are some changes you can make to keep eye strain headaches at bay.
Wear Prescription Eyeglasses
If you have vision problems, placing additional strain on your eyes will only make matters worse. Get an eye test and make sure to wear your eyeglasses when you work on your computer or look at your phone screen.
Wear Computer Glasses
Talk to your doctor about computer glasses to protect your eyes from the glare of the screen. Computer glasses can also filter out blue light and help you focus better.
Follow the 20-20-20 Rule
If you have to be in front of a screen for many hours, remember the 20-20-20 rule. After 20 minutes of work, take your eyes away from the screen and focus on an object situated at least 20 feet away for 20 seconds. Repeat after another 20 minutes of staring at the screen.
Correct Your Posture
Use a desk support to place your digital device at eye level so you don’t have to strain your eyes by looking at the screen at odd angles. Place your computer monitor directly in front of you at an arm’s length distance.
The top of the screen should be at eye level or just a little bit below. The same goes for digital phones. If you spend a lot of time looking at the screen, use a special support or holder to bring it to eye level.
Tip: Check out 10 tips to reduce computer eye strain.
Consider Taking Eye Health Supplements
Staring at a screen and not blinking enough will make your eyes dry, which in turn can make the headache all the more unpleasant. To make it easier for your eyes to produce quality tears, consider taking a full-spectrum eye health supplement like SightC.
When Should You See a Doctor
A headache due to eye strain will go away quickly if you rest your eyes. If your problems persist or worsen after making the changes we suggested, it’s best to see a doctor.
Strain is not the only eye problem that can trigger a headache. Other triggers can be inflammation, an optic nerve disorder, or glaucoma, and these require medical intervention.
Eye strain headaches can be annoying, but they are rarely serious. Focusing your eyes for a prolonged period on a book, digital screen, or even the road you're driving on affects the muscles controlling eye movements, and this can trigger a headache.
The first thing you need to do is stop whatever it is you’re doing and rest in a dark quiet place.
To prevent such issues in the future, adjust the position of your computer or phone, tweak the brightness to reduce glare, and improve contrast on your screen. Also, remember to take a break every 20 minutes and focus your eyes on something else.
Dry eyes often occur before or alongside eye strain headaches. Figuring out whether you have dry eyes could help you address the condition before experiencing any headaches.
Do you have dry eye symptoms? Take the Dry Eye Test.