How to prevent a headache from computer use?

When we switch our computer on in the morning, we are usually greeted by a beautiful screensaver. Maybe it is a vacation snapshot, a picture of the kids, or a beautiful scene out of nature. Try as we might, those beautiful screensavers cannot cover up the fact that our computer screens may be causing us headache pain. Headache from computer use is a growing issue. Here’s what you should know about preventing it, along with more innovative treatments that can help.

Why do I have a headache from computer use? 

Screens are ubiquitous, and our use of them has increased as technology advances. The average adult spends up to nine hours a day looking at a screen (and checking a cell phone 150 times a day), and that may not count all of the hours logged in front of a computer at work.

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Kids are not much better. Their screen time averages clock in at seven hours and 38 minutes a day. If you consider that many kids spend their time “media multitasking” (using more than one screen at a time), that amount jumps to a total of ten hours and 45 minutes of daily screen time.

All of this can lead to headache from computer (and mobile and tablet) use. It’s commonly referred to as “computer vision syndrome” or “computer eye strain.”

What is computer vision syndrome?

Computer vision syndrome (CVS) is being increasingly diagnosed for those of us with 24/7 access to the world of technology. The particular nature of a computer screen and prolonged viewing of it can lead to computer vision syndrome.

It’s a temporary but uncomfortable condition that can include the following symptoms:

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) estimates that approximately 90% of adults who spend three or more consecutive hours looking at a computer will experience some or all of these symptoms, with headache from computer use and eye strain being the most common.

How to prevent headache from computer use

With so much work being performed on computers these days, CVS may seem inevitable, but here are nine simple ways to prevent it.

1. Take breaks

Not only is sitting devastatingly bad for your health, but short breaks are actually very good for you in terms of both health and productivity.

Every hour, stand, stretch, and take a stroll around the office. (And, don’t use this time to check your text messages!)

2. Move away from the light

Glare from windows makes your eyes work harder to see and is the leading cause of eye strain. If you prefer a desk by the window (and you are lucky enough to have that), use blinds or shades and keep them lowered when you are working.

Anti-glare screens are also available and can help reduce glare even further. Make sure you are not facing an unshaded window, as that could cause you to squint and further strain your eyes. Also, use programs like f.lux to reduce blue light from screens, especially in the evening.

3. Contact lens wearers, blink

When we are focusing on a digital screen, we blink up to three times less than when looking at a book or something else 3-D.

Ask your eye doctor about breathable lenses, and keep eye-wetting drops close by. Use them when taking a break.

4. Adjust your monitor height

You should be able to look up and just over the top of your screen. Your monitor or laptop should sit five to nine inches below your horizontal line of vision.

5. Adjust the distance between your eyes and your monitor

Sit back in your chair. If you can touch the screen at this distance, you are sitting too close. To adjust, open a document of a type you would use every day and move back until it becomes blurry. Divide this distance by three, then place your monitor at that distance.

6. Adjust your lighting

In addition to making you look terrible, overhead fluorescent lights are very taxing to the eyes. If you can, use indirect lighting from a desk lamp or floor lighting.

7. Back away from the cell phone

Studies have shown that we hold digital devices much closer to our eyes than we do printed material, and this can cause eye strain and headache.

Hold your mobile devices as far away as you can while still being able to read. These devices also have the ability to make print larger, so take advantage of that feature.

8. If you are transcribing or doing research, place paper documents in line with your screen

The movement of looking frequently down and to the side can place strain on the eyes, head, and neck and cause repetitive motion injuries. Take a tip from secretaries in the 50s and invest in a spring-loaded clip that attaches your paper documents to your screen. You can also use a document stand that sits next to your monitor or laptop.

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9. Finally, have an annual eye exam

Many health insurance plans may include an annual vision exam. Take advantage of this provision and have your vision checked by an eye care professional. Let them know how many hours you spend in front of a screen.

If you have any concerns about your eyes, or you have been having symptoms of CVS that include headaches and dizziness, an annual exam is a great time to share them. You are also establishing a relationship with a doctor who can follow changes in your vision over the years, noting if there is anything that might be of concern.

Treating headaches from computer use

Unfortunately, headaches as a whole are one of the most common pain problems. Almost everyone has experienced an acute headache in their lives. About 15% of the population has experienced recurring headaches that can lead to debilitating pain. Sometimes the pain is generalized but often it is centered on a specific area of the head. This can be indicative of the type of headache the individual is experiencing.

Commonly-recommended treatments for managing headaches include:

  • Drinking enough water and eating a balanced, healthy diet
  • Using over-the-counter medications, like aspirin or ibuprofen
  • Resting in a quiet and dark room
  • Using hot or cold compresses on your neck
  • For severe cases, talking to your doctor about preventative medications or other interventional treatments

Innovative headache treatments

New treatment and pain relieving techniques are being discovered all the time and what can’t help one person could help another. While the common treatments work for many, these treatments may help for others whose pain hasn’t resolved. Here are eight innovative treatments for headaches.

1. Acupuncture

Acupuncture is performed by trained practitioners who insert fine needles in specific points along the body’s meridians which then corrects the flow of the body’s natural energy known as qi.

This is a relatively low risk treatment so it is often recommended as an exploratory option for people looking to reduce their pain or their dependence on medications. Acupuncture is fairly accessible anywhere in the country.

2. Biofeedback

This method is a way to retrain the brain to react to painful stimuli.

In a session, the patient is able to observe their vital signs and brain activity as a headache occurs. These tools help them visualize the effects of stress on their bodies and they are able to learn relaxation techniques that can help control the triggers that lead to these headaches. Patients work directly with specialists for this process.

3. Neuromodulation

This method is a way of inhibiting or disrupting the pain signals that are being communicated by the nerves to the brain. Impulses to the nerves can lessen the signals and help relieve pain. Some patients experience headache relief from deep brain stimulation where electrodes are implanted directly in the brain which override the body’s natural inclination to transmit pain to the brain.

It has been most successful in treating cluster and tension headaches. There have also been observable relationships between the quality of sleep and these types of pain signals. Neuromodulation is still experimental and will require additional testing before it is recommended as a standard treatment for certain types of headaches.

4. Transcranial stimulation

For a non-invasive option, transcranial stimulation has several similarities to neuromodulation. Electrodes are applied to the head on a cap that stimulates the appropriate nerves through the skull. One form of this treatment, TENS, is already commonly used for a variety of pain conditions. There are very few side effects and the worst reported seem to be mild pain and muscle cramps. It has been proven effective for cluster and migraine headaches.

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5. Botox

The use of pharmacological treatments can land fully on both ends of the medical spectrum. Some specialists feel like medication is over-prescribed while others feel it provides the best pain relief for their patients. However, many headaches don’t respond well to the types of drugs that are currently on the market and the final step is often opioids that come attached with a very high risk of dependency or addiction.

Some doctors are seeing success using the popular cosmetic injections known as Botox. Ultimately, patients are injecting a powerful neurotoxin into their skin but, when supervised by a medical professional, it can be used to relax muscles that are strained during a headache. It has been approved for treating tension headaches and chronic migraines.

6. Triptans

For patients suffering from the pain of cluster headaches, which can be tricky to diagnose and treat, inhaled triptans have had some success. However, they are best if used against specific headache pain and are not considered a cure. They have limited side effects if used correctly. Though this treatment will not stop headaches from reoccurring, it can help restore normalcy when life is interrupted by head pain.

7. Massage therapy

Because tension is at the heart of several types of headaches, many patients have success with massage therapy. Stress can be a major cause of head pain but that can also make it difficult to treat in an effective way. Since stress can be caused by both major and minor life events the head pain can come and go frequently and at inconvenient times. Many doctors recommend massage therapy for patients dealing with the effects of stress causing head pain. Some insurance companies will even pay for massage therapy with a licensed practitioner if it is prescribed by a doctor.

8. Radiofrequency ablation

Of course, for some people suffering from debilitating chronic migraines the final solution needs to be invasive. For the least invasive of the surgical procedures, some patients turn to radiofrequency ablation. In the procedure, your doctor will insert a needle-like probe into the back of your neck near nerves in the upper spine. The probe then uses radio waves to create an electric current that heats the nerve endings.

This incapacitates the nerves so they no longer transmit the incorrect pain data to the brain. This can be a permanent solution for chronic head pain.

Get help for headache from computer use

To find out if you might be at risk for CVS, or if you are experiencing headaches or other symptoms, talk to your doctor to reduce your chances of screen-related conditions.

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