Stealing sight: Computer Vision Syndrome on rise

Expert: Young workers seeing most severe symptoms

SAN DIEGO - It’s a story millions of modern American workers know well: hours typing and staring at a computer screen, accompanied by neck pain and dry eyes. But health experts are just discovering the devastating effects it can have on your vision.

Linda Totanes said she stares at a computer screen 10 hours a day. Over the last few years at work, she has watched her eye prescription deteriorate.

"It just started out like -1.00, -2.00, -2.50, -3.75 and it eventually got to -4.50, and I'm like, 'Oh my God, I really can't see anything,'" said Totanes. "Without help, I literally can't see you sitting in front of me."

Now, at just 39 years old, Totanes said her night vision is gone. She said her failing vision, combined with the blinding halos of light she sees around headlights, has made her stop driving in the dark.

"I don't trust myself with my son in the backseat," said Totanes. "I never thought at this age this would happen. But I think, 'What if I hurt someone, what if I crash?' It's not worth it."

Totanes was diagnosed with Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS), and she's not alone.

According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, up to 90 percent of Americans who use a computer for more than three hours a day have symptoms. The American Optometric Association lists the symptoms as eyestrain, fatigue, headache, dry eyes, neck and back pain, double vision and blurred vision.

Experts say what's startling is how young people are seeing some of the most severe symptoms.

Melissa Banila is 30-years-old. After working 16-hour days behind a computer screen, she said she's had multiple near accidents on the freeway, swerving through lanes to pull over, completely unable to see.

"After a long day at work, my contacts would fuse to my eye," said Banila. "I couldn't see; I didn't see someone next to me. I could have gotten in an accident. That was really scary for me." 

Dr. Sandy T. Feldman, medical director at Clearview Eye and Laser Center, said one in six patients who comes to see her has symptoms of Computer Vision Syndrome.

"It's amazing; it's a growing, growing problem," Feldman said. "We consider this a public health emergency."

She points out Computer Vision Syndrome is of particular concern for children. Many in this generation spend hours staring at phones, tablets, computers and television screens.

"We should think about our child's eyes. They are growing and we want to reduce the potential for nearsightedness," Feldman said.

Perhaps related to the effects of screen time, nearsightedness is on an alarming rise. According to the National Eye Institute in Bethesda, Md., in the U.S., 42 percent of 24- to 54-year-olds are nearsighted, compared to just 25 percent in that age group 30 years ago.

Meanwhile, research from the Department of Health Management at I-Shou University in Taiwan reveals nearsightedness in the current Chinese population stands at an alarming 86 percent. The study authors point to reading small screens on smartphones.

So what can you do?

Feldman says you should wear the right prescription at the computer or have special computer glasses. You can also tilt the screen 15 degrees down and make sure it sits 20 inches away from your eyes. She emphasizes reducing glare on the screen and adjusting the brightness in different environments. But, most importantly, follow the "20-20-20" rule.

"Every 20 minutes you're staring at the screen, look 20 feet away for 20 seconds," said Feldman. "It's easy to remember and it works."

Both Totanes and Banila recently underwent eye surgery, hoping for a cure to their vision woes. Both told 10News they are recovering well and said they can't wait to see results.

"You hear about people in their 60s and 70s with eye problems, but at my age? And from my computer? I never thought," said Totanes. "It's kind of sad. I mean, vision is everything."