Proper use of hand-held devices may ease or prevent eye, neck problemsConstant use of a smartphone can affect one’s eyesight, new research suggests, but negative effects may have more to do with how you hold it, rather than the device itself.
By: Pamela Knudson, Grand Forks Herald
Constant use of a smartphone can affect one’s eyesight, new research suggests, but negative effects may have more to do with how you hold it, rather than the device itself.
David Allamby, an eye surgeon and founder of Focus Clinics in London, recently coined the term “screen sightedness” and pointed out that, according to his research, there has been a 35 percent increase in the number of people with advancing myopia since smartphones launched in 1997.
Myopia, or nearsightedness, is a condition caused by a combination of hereditary factors and environment, says Shlomit Schaal, an eye surgeon and assistant professor of ophthalmology at the University of Louisville. It affects more than 30 percent of U.S. citizens.
Since it is linked to heredity, there is no known way to prevent myopia, or even to slow it down. Glasses and contact lenses don’t affect its progression, Schaal says. The greatest shifts in myopia happen before age 25.
Environment and genetics play a role in the incidence of myopia in a given population, Dr. Jeffery Yunker, an optometrist with Lifetime Vision Center in Grand Forks, said.
And age takes a toll too.
“With age, the ability to make your eyes focus close up decreases,” he said
Environmental factors that contribute to the condition include “close work” or stress on the eye caused by reading or otherwise focusing on a near object.
Using a smartphone strains the eye in much the same way reading a book or staring at a computer monitor does, with one exception: the distance between the eye and the object.
When a phone or other device is held close to one’s face, it forces the eye to work harder than usual to focus on text, says Mark Rosenfield, an optometrist who published research on the topic in The Journal of the American Academy of Optometry. The discomfort can eventually result in fatigue.
People tend to hold smartphones much closer to their faces than they would a book or newspaper, even as close as 7 or 8 inches, Rosenfield says. And since smartphones have such a small screen, the incidents of peering closely at them tend to be higher than for other devices.
The effects of staring at these hand-held devices “are the same as staring at a computer for too long,” Yunker said.
But there are ways of using this technology that are easier on the eyes.
“It’s recommended to have the spot you’re looking at be slightly below eye level,” he said.
Holding a smartphone farther away, but still using it the same amount, won’t necessarily prevent myopia entirely, Schaal said.
“The closer you hold things, the harder your eyes have to work to focus,” Yunker said. He suggests holding the smartphone 16 to 17 inches from the face to ease eye strain.
He also recommends adjusting the contrast on the screen, the browser size, and the size of the type.
“You can adjust the browser size on most smartphones,” he said.
He also suggests titling the device to eliminate reflected light from the sun or artificial sources.
“Reflected light on screens is going to induce eye strain.”
Yunker, who is president of the North Dakota Board of Optometry, encourages people to follow what, in his field, is called the “20-20-20 rule” to reduce the feeling of eye strain.
“Every 20 minutes, take a 20-second break and look up (from a computer screen) and look at something 20 feet away.”
About the chances of developing myopia from close-up focusing, he said, the jury’s still out.
“Will a person’s eyes get worse? That’s not known for sure, but studies show it’s real common for medical and law students to have an increase in nearsightedness” due to intense studying.
Yunker suggests having your eyes checked by a professional every couple of years. Children should have an eye exam before entering kindergarten and in grades 1, 3 and 5, he said.
For those who are already affected by myopia, there are some ways tablets and other devices can even help, the doctors said.
Patients, especially those with age-related macular degeneration, have benefitted from being able to view larger fonts and increased contrast on hand-held devices such as an iPad or Kindle, Schaal said.
“In the past, these patients might have had to use a magnifying lens or very strong glasses to read the material, but now they can enlarge the print and read it with a more normal prescription,” Rosenfield said.
Young children’s eyes may be spared early damage by limiting smartphone and tablet use, Schaal and Rosenfield say. Spending hours playing games or otherwise intently viewing a screen causes children’s eyes to exert effort for long periods.
In the past children focused on larger objects like blocks or toys, rather than such fine detail. They should be encouraged to engage in a variety of activities with different focusing targets of both near and far-away objects, Schaal says.
Neck and back issues
“Holding the smartphone at the wrong angle can also lead to neck and back issues based on posture and the way you’re holding it when you read (it),” Yunker said.
Kirk Hayes, physical therapist with Rehab Authority in Grand Forks, said, “We’ve probably seen more (patients with these problems) than we know (because) patients don’t know exactly how they got the pain. They don’t tie it to (use of) the smartphone or computer.”
He recalled a patient, in his early 50s, who complained of headaches and neck pain which worsened when he used his computerized tablet.
“He would lie on the bed, his head forward (propped up by pillows), so his chin was all the way to his chest,” Hayes said.
In that position, the gel-like substance in the spinal disk can shift backward creating a bulge that puts pressure on the nerves, he said. “That pressure can give you neck pain.”
Depending on “how the gel has migrated” and where that pressure occurs in the spine, pain can be referred to the shoulder, the shoulder blade or into the hand, for example.
“The majority of my work is (the result of) what we do to our bodies every day,” he said. Poor posture “throws the balance off, especially in the back.
“It finally catches up with us.”
Shifts in other joints of the body will generate symptoms, such as weakness, tingling and numbness, he said.
Good posture is critical to avoiding such problems, Hayes said. “People don’t understand how much it affects them. (It) makes a big difference.”
It’s important that the head is not protruded or bent forward for long periods of time, he said.
“If you’re looking straight down and texting a lot, you need to tilt the head back the other way. Do this three to five times, moving the head back” in the opposite direction.
“This counteracts the stress we put on it.”
If that’s not working, he said, “a lot of times you may need a slight adjustment from a physical therapist.”
Maria Lamagna, of Market Watch, contributed to this article. Knudson covers Health and Family for the Herald and can be reached at (701) 780-1107, (800) 477-6572, ext.1107 or email@example.com.