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Don't get so close: A guide for computer work

By Ruth Underwood
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(CNN) -- Remember when your mom told you not to sit too close to the television, because it would ruin your eyes? Well, how many hours of the day or evening do you spend sitting just a couple of feet from your computer screen?

According to a recent survey by MetaFacts Inc., a market research firm, people in the United States spent an average of 25.9 hours a week on their computers in 2005.

And it looks once again as if Mom might've had a point -- a collection of problems, called computer vision syndrome, can result from spending so much time in front of a computer monitor. (Watch how to avoid another computer-related malady, 'crackberry thumb.' Video )

According to Dr. Jeffrey Anshel, optometrist and author of "Visual Ergonomics in the Workplace," The American Optometric Association describes computer vision syndrome as "that complex of eye and vision complaints that people experience during or after computer use: eyestrain, blurred vision, headaches, neck and backaches."

What do neck and backaches have to do with vision? Dr. Anshel explains, "because the eyes lead the body, people will adjust their body posture to make it easier for their eyes to see. So, very often if someone has a backache or neck or shoulder problem it could be their eyes."

Headaches and dry eyes are also symptoms of computer vision syndrome. The causes can include poor lighting, glare, a desk or workstation that is not set up correctly, and even uncorrected vision problems.

"I feel that computer vision problems are a combination of three factors," says Dr. Anshel, "the work environment, the person's work habits and their visual condition."

In terms of the physical environment, Dr. Anshel says, "the No. 1 problem I see in the workplace is the height of the monitor." He says that most monitors are actually too high, and recommends positioning the monitor "so that if someone is sitting in a comfortable posture, sitting back in their chair, if they're looking straight ahead they should be looking just over the top of the monitor." He also recommends that the monitor be angled back about 10 to 15 degrees.

Lighting is also important, and can be tricky, says Dr. Anshel "Normally we work on paper, which needs reflected light, but the monitor has its own light, so it's a whole different lighting situation, so you need to balance it out. In general what I recommend is that the background of the monitor and the surrounding illumination around it are approximately equal."

The American Optometric Association recommends an annual eye exam for anyone who spends more than a few hours each day using a computer -- even if you aren't having any problems. Make sure you arrive at your appointment with information about the configuration of your work space to share with your doctor.

Dr. Anshel asks his patients to complete a brief questionnaire about their work environment. If the time you spend staring at the screen isn't changing, rearranging your desk and adopting a few new habits may make all the difference.

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A collection of problems, called computer vision syndrome, can result from spending too much time in front of a computer monitor.


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  • Healthology

    Dr. Jeffrey Anshel, optometrist and author of "Visual Ergonomics in the Workplace," recommends the "Three-B" approach to help avoid computer eyestrain.

    Blink: Remember to blink. When looking at a computer screen, people tend to blink one-third less often than they normally would, which means the eyes tend to dry out and to strain more.

    Breathe: "When we're under deadlines, we hold our breath and we stress out and we don't work as efficiently and, again, that leads to visual stress," Anshel says.

    Break: Follow Dr. Anshel's 20/20/20 rule: "Every 20 minutes, take 20 seconds, and look 20 feet away." That allows people to take shorter and more frequent breaks to allow their eyes to relax and be more comfortable, he says.

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