Computers are an integral part of most people’s lives today. This isn’t news. What isn’t widely known is how using your vision for the computer is quite possibly the very thing making the extensor muscles of your body work overtime, causing tension, pain, poor performance, or even hampering your upright physical activities. Here’s the lowdown on the visual system’s role in this:
- Focusing (eyedocs call this accommodation) on a close target, such as a computer screen, is required for the majority of people to make the words on the screen clear. When the muscles inside the eye are stimulated for this close focus, there is an associated tensing of many muscles in the head and neck.
- The closer you are to the screen, the more the muscles inside the eye are stimulated to work harder, exponentially, to make it clear.
- If your vision isn’t clear, and you must strain to either make it clear or to see despite the blur, the extensor muscles of the head and neck will tighten up. For all you PRI junkies out there, this could produce a positive TMCC (Temporal Mandibular Cervical Chain) pattern. For the lay person, this means tension in the upper shoulders, neck, jaw, and/or head.
- Many people over 40 need bifocals to see things that are close. No-line bifocals (aka progressives, multifocals) are great for cosmetics, but can be detrimental at the computer if not designed for this purpose. Often too much head movement, especially tilting the chin up, is needed to find the “sweet spot” in the lens to see the computer screen, and this “spot” is usually not very large because computer use isn’t the primary purpose of the lens design. Tilting or constant head movement to “search” for this spot will do the same thing to the muscles of the head and neck as in the last point.
- Any close up task that requires mental concentration is more likely to have you “focusing in” on the details. This isn’t referring to clarity of words on the screen, but rather to where your visual attention is directed. Look at your screen and see how far out to each side you can “notice” other things in your peripheral vision, such as a picture, a calendar, a window etc., without moving your eyes away from the screen. If you frequently have difficulty maintaining subtle awareness of objects in your side vision, you are more likely to tighten up the head and neck muscles. Clinically, we have also observed over-focusing on the details inhibiting proper diaphragmatic breathing!—Do you yawn a lot???
If any of the above things are going on during a typical day, it will be tough for someone to be physically comfortable and their most productive at the computer. Less obviously-associated symptoms include difficulty concentrating, fatigue, foggy thinking, and trouble keeping your place on the screen/in a document. Worse yet, it will make it nearly impossible for someone to stay “neutral” in the PRI world, even once they are done with their screen time and get physically active. This is because overuse of the neck muscles directly impacts the spine and trunk below it, even after you stop the activity. If you don’t know what “neutral” means, trust me you want this!!! It means much more than this, but simply put there is no extra tension in muscles that shouldn’t be there to hold yourself in whatever position you are in: sitting, standing, etc. (visit http://www.posturalrestoration.com for more info)
How do I avoid this?
- I recommend that the computer screen be no closer than arm’s reach away (with palm flat on the screen). Farther is better in most cases!
- Set the height of your screen so that about 2/3 of the screen is below eye level. Some people like a little more, some a little less. Move it around and see where BOTH your neck and eyes seem to be the most comfortable. If the eyes and neck aren’t comfortable with the same height, you probably don’t have the right lenses on.
- Wear the right optical correction for the task. For some, this might be the same thing you normally wear, even nothing at all. For bifocal users, eliminate the need to search and tilt the chin up by getting computer-specific lenses. Your optometrist can help you with this….just ask them! There are also patients who can see the screen clearly (and some who can’t), but their optometrist can tell they are straining to see it with a few probing tests; in this case, computer lenses may be recommended to make it more efficient for the visual system to look at a screen all day. This last type of person is most likely to include those who have great vision and have never had an eye exam because they don’t “need it”.
- Not all eye exams include a look at computer vision. Bring it up! If you don’t have an eyecare provider or one who will do this for you, go to http://www.covd.org and search for one in your area. These docs tend to look at more than just seeing clearly far away.
- Place objects you can periodically be aware of in your side vision, especially on the left side. Check in with yourself a few times an hour to see if you can still see them without moving your eyes from the screen.
- Take visual breaks. For one minute every 30 minutes look at something far away: out a window, across a large room, anything farther away than 15 feet preferably. Stuck in a closed-in cubicle? Close your eyes and imagine a relaxing image that includes lots of wide-open space: a beach, the view from a tall building or mountain, or an open field are good ones. Whether looking somewhere real or imagined, let your body and eyes relax and slow your breathing. Don’t focus on far away details, just take in the scene! If your distance vision wasn’t clear when you first looked far away, it should get better with this.
These tips will go a long way to making a happier, screen-loving you. In the next part, we’ll look at body positioning in a chair to provide the proper base of support for the shoulders, head, neck, and eyes to deal with the demands coming from a screen.
Keep Moving Beyond Sight!