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Everybody’s eyes feel tired now and again, but asthenopia (or eye strain) is the name for the specific feeling of the eyes being tired, sore, or even mildly painful. People develop asthenopia after looking at a phone or computer screen for a long time, especially in low-light conditions.
Asthenopia is the result of extended use of the muscles that control the movements of the eye, and specifically of the pupils (the dark circles of the eye).
People who have dry eyes or who don’t use corrective lenses (either eyeglasses or contact lenses) are more likely to develop asthenopia than those who take regular breaks from their screen time, those who blink regularly or do other kinds of eye exercises, and those who wear the appropriate corrective eyewear.
Other ways of reducing eye strain and tired eyes is to adjust the lighting on your screen and to work in environments that have more (or better) light.
Basics of Asthenopia
Tired eyes can happen to anyone, even children who have not been exposed to screens. The effects can continue for hours after they start, and the more a person exposes their eyes to conditions that induce asthenopia, the worse the symptoms and effects will be. In cases like these, the symptoms will begin immediately after you start using your eyes for close vision, sometimes making it painful or even impossible to read, focus, or concentrate.
Tired eyes have symptoms, usually (but not always) localized in the eyes themselves:
- Soreness (in the eyes)
- Pain (in the eyes)
- Dryness (in the eyes)
- Difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty reading
- Blurry vision
In most cases, asthenopia is a temporary condition that should resolve on its own. With basic care, it should not cause any long-lasting harm to your eyes, and your vision should not suffer.
But not addressing the conditions that cause tired eyes will lead to persistent problems like those mentioned above, which can become problematic and disruptive on their own. For example, the physical positions that lead to the development of tired eyes can also cause neck pain and shoulder pain, which can lead to other health problems.
Tired eyes, or asthenopia, is a condition that results from overuse of the eyes, particularly in situations of low light, intense focus, or using your eyes for long periods of time without resting them.
People with tired eyes might struggle to focus their vision. They might feel pain in their eyes. They could feel dizzy, nauseated, or fatigued by the stress of trying to apply their vision in suboptimal settings.
Tired eyes are the result of the muscles in the eyes being forced to work without any rest, which makes it difficult to focus vision and can cause pain.
Remedying tired eyes could simply mean taking a break from using your eyes and working in well-lit conditions. It could also mean making a point to close the eyes and do some light massages and treatments. These give your eye muscles time to restore themselves.
What Causes Tired Eyes?
Tired eyes are the result of unbroken periods of intense focus of the eyes, especially in conditions that strain the eyes. They are exacerbated by low light, looking at a screen, or reading small print.
Tired eyes can be caused by:
- Intense eye focus. Working on a small craft project is one situation where asthenopia can develop, but even driving at night (or in poor conditions, where you are squinting and not giving your eyes a break) can cause tired eyes.
- Using smartphones, computers, and other electronic devices is a big factor in developing tired eyes. Especially on small devices, where font size is often miniscule, the blue light exposure can take a toll on the eyes. As a result, tired eyes are very common among students and people who have to work on a computer all day long. Similarly, people who have to do a lot of screen reading for their job (lawyers and accountants, for example) are also at risk.
- Certain recreational activities. Playing video games in a dark room, or for too long, will put strain on the eyes. A hobby that requires intense eye focus (like crafting or sketching) will have a similar effect. Anything that requires rapid movement of the eyes back and forth can also be a concern for tired eyes.
- Poor lighting. Inadequate lighting can strain the eyes.
Vision Problems & Tired Eyes
While asthenopia can affect anyone, pre-existing problems with vision can significantly increase the chances of developing eye strain. Certain conditions of the eye can make it more likely that the effects of tired eyes become more noticeable and disruptive.
Having these vision problems will make it harder for you to see and focus, so the natural instinct is to try and focus even more. The already compromised eye muscles will be weakened further, which will cause more vision problems, like blurriness, and stress.
People who are prone to headaches, migraines, photophobia, and dry eye syndrome will likely already have sensitive eyes. Performing activities that require precise use of the eyes will almost certainly induce asthenopia.
The Ciliary & Extraocular Muscles
The eye has a number of muscles to help it focus, but like every muscle, they need to be rested, and they need to be used in optimal conditions.
The pupils are moved by the ciliary muscles constricting (getting smaller) for up-close vision and dilating (getting larger) for focusing on objects far away.
If you move your eyes back and forth quickly, the extraocular muscles responsible for moving the eyes from side to side will become stressed. This happens even more if the object of focus is small, on a screen, or in a darkened environment.
Diagnosing tired eyes is fairly straightforward. If the symptoms only appear when you have to focus on screens or small objects, and if they are alleviated by rest and gently rubbing your eyes, then you likely have asthenopia. Lingering problems (such as nausea, dizziness, or pain) would indicate the presence of a vision deficit or a severe case of asthenopia (one that would require a doctor’s appointment and likely a lifestyle change).
At an eye clinic, a doctor can give you an eye exam, which would include vision testing and a thorough examination of the condition and structure of your eye. This will determine the presence of any vision problems, the extent of the asthenopia, and what corrective measures need to be taken.
Other Problems Causing Tired Eyes
Because the symptoms of tired eyes are somewhat general, they can also be caused by a number of other conditions that produce similar symptoms. Migraines, for example, also come with pain in the eyes, fatigue, headaches, and sensitivity to light.
Tired eyes can trigger migraines. While the effects of tired eyes will usually resolve themselves quickly, migraines tend to last much longer. Additionally, the symptoms of migraines cannot be relieved by simply resting your eyes.
Tension headaches are another ailment that cause symptoms similar to those of tired eyes. People who have tension headaches will experience pressure on the forehead, which can feel like a pain behind the eyes or even in the eyes. Eye strain is not uncommon with tension headaches. Over-the-counter pain medication like acetaminophen or ibuprofen will usually help the headaches, but the eye strain will need further treatment, like rest or home remedies.
Fatigue can also contribute to tired eyes. Exhaustion, being worn out, and not getting enough sleep can make it difficult to focus the eyes on text or a moving target, and the harder you try, the worse it will get and the more tired you will feel. Generally, simple rest and sleep will help. The basic act of closing your eyes and not looking at anything will give the muscles in your eyes a chance to heal and restore themselves.
Conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye, is a contagious viral infection where the white part of the eyes (the sclera) turns pink, and crust forms around the eyes and eyelids. The eyes feel itchy and painful, and there might also be a sensitivity to light. People who are suffering from conjunctivitis might also have asthenopia because of how the eyes are affected as a result of the infection.
The Dangers of Having Tired Eyes
If you have tired eyes, you may be more prone to accidents and injuries. You also are less likely to feel good and be productive.
Dangers of tired eyes include:
- Less ability to judge distances.
- Increased accidents.
- Higher likelihood of injuries.
- Increased fatigue and less ability to focus.
- Blurry vision.
When people treat their tired eyes, they often experience increased energy, greater productivity, and an overall improved sense of wellbeing.
Treating Tired Eyes
There is no medication to relieve tired eyes or eye strain. As mentioned, there are a number of different ways you can minimize the chances of it developing or manage it when you do experience it.
- Rest your eyes. When you feel like it is getting difficult to focus your vision on letters or the task in front of you, it is a sign that you need to stop what you’re doing. Close your eyes, if only for a few seconds. Gently rub them, or do some breathing exercises. You can even look outside, letting your gaze wander. Essentially, you are giving your eye muscles a break.
- Adjust lighting. Use adequate lighting when you are reading or working.
- Reduce electronic brightness. Set the brightness on your phone or computer screen so you have the necessary contrast to read text easily, but not so much contrast that it becomes too bright to focus your eyes.
- Increase font size. Make sure the font on your phone or computer is large enough to be discernible from a distance. You should not have to bring the screen to your nose just to make out the text.
- Take breaks from screens. A break every 20 minutes is a good rule of thumb. Try to limit screen time, or cut it out altogether, at least an hour before bed.
- See a doctor. If you notice regular problems with pain or strain related to your vision, play it safe and make an appointment to have your eyes checked. Tired eyes will not lead to blindness or anything drastic, but leaving the problem unchecked can make your day-to-day life very frustrating. If the issue doesn’t improve within a few days, it’s time to see a doctor.
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