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Is Working At My Computer Causing My Headaches?

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Updated March 14, 2012

Is Working At My Computer Causing My Headaches?
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These days it would be hard to imagine life without a computer. Whether it's our constant need to check e-mail, the hours we spend surfing the Internet, or a quest to master a video game - staring into a computer monitor has become a way-of-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. Millions of people have experienced some form of headache at least once while working at a computer. Fortunately, we know some of the reasons why it might be happening, and ways to help put computer-related headaches to rest.

Eyestrain
Eyestrain is one of the most common headache triggers in high-frequency computer users.

Focusing
You might think the act of focusing on a screen is a straightforward process but 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 re-adjust its 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, which can eventually trigger a headache.

There are a few things we can do to help alleviate headaches triggered by eyestrain:

  • If you're working for more than 45 minutes, get up and take a 10-15 minute break. Use that time to do activities that don't require focusing on a monitor like going for a walk, looking out of a window or looking down a long hallway.
  • If you're referring to 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 and less opportunity for eyestrain.

    Illumination
    Not all eyestrain-induced headaches come from staring at a computer screen. Eyestrain headaches can also be triggered by working in a bright environment. The lighting in many office spaces include 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.

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

  • Try turning the overhead lights down the next time you're working at the computer.
  • If your work-setting doesn't allow for you to easily adjust the room lighting or where you sit, try adjusting the brightness and contrast settings on your computer monitor.
  • If you're working on an older-style CRT monitor a glare filter that attaches to the front of your screen may also help.

    Patterns and Images
    Interestingly, there's no strong evidence that the actual images on a computer screen trigger headache. While some patterns on the screen (e.g., 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. However, if you feel that screen patterns seem to be triggering your headaches consult with your doctor immediately.

    Posture
    Do you find yourself hunched over or leaning into your computer screen when a headache comes on? If so, your bad posture might be the cause of your headache. Poor cervical neck curvature is a common observation in computer-users who complain of headache. Chiropractors and osteopathic practitioners suggest that manipulating neck tension in patients with abnormal neck posture can greatly improve headache pain.

    You can also do things on your own to maintain proper posture:

  • Check the position of your shoulders while typing and try to relax.
  • Adjust your monitor angle and height so that you are not over-engaging your neck muscles to see.
  • Position your keyboard and work equipment so that they're at a comfortable distance.

    Computer Vision Syndrome
    In many cases, people who spend several hours a day working on a computer not only complain of headaches from eyestrain but also blurry vision, dry eyes, shoulder pain and neck pain. A combination of these symptoms could lead to a diagnosis of Computer Vision Syndrome.(CVS).

    CVS is a condition that is not only physically discomforting but can also have a significant impact on your computer-related productivity. Just imagine, if you're having constant headaches while working at the computer, you're more likely to make errors, need more frequent breaks, and could be placing yourself at risk for long-term musculoskeletal injury.

    The most common treatment for CVS is prescription eyewear. An optometrist can provide you with corrective lenses that are optimal for your computer situation. The right lenses can help your eyes focus at the plane of the computer screen and provide some relief of headache symptoms.

    Environment
    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?
    Any of these environmental stimuli can trigger headaches on their own - so taking the time to assess what's going on around you might yield additional clues.

    It's important to be sure to properly evaluate any other symptoms that accompany your headache like the presence of fever, or any other aches and pains. In addition, take the time to think about any out of the ordinary events that preceded your headaches. For example, did you have a recent fall or injury? Always consult with your doctor regarding your headaches - whether they be from working at the computer or any other task.

    Sources:

    American Optometric Society. Computer Vision Syndrome. Accessed: January 2012.

    Rosenfield, M. Computer vision syndrome: a review of ocular causes and potential treatments. Ophthalmic Physiol Opt. 2011 Sep;31(5):502-15

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