As a headache specialist, I know that headaches can have complex causes. But one common headache trigger that people fail to recognize is screen time.
On average, more than 2/3 of computer users suffer from increased headaches, according to some reports. This is a real issue, because one survey noted that the average person is on a screen 6 hours a day (equal to 84 days per year) and that a person working daily from 9 to 5 will often develop headache symptoms as early as 2 pm.
Staring at a screen, whether a computer, phone, or tablet, for work or entertainment, can lead to both tension and migraine headaches. There is even a term for headaches related to screen time called “Computer Vision Syndrome.”
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Tension headaches caused by screens are often linked to eyestrain and dry eyes. When we’re not looking at a screen we blink an average of 20 times per minute, but during screen time that may be reduced to 2 blinks in 60 seconds!
In migraine sufferers, increased screen time can either worsen an existing migraine or can bring on a new migraine — it’s a trigger for about 1 in 6 migraine sufferers.
Who Is At Risk
People at higher risk for screen use-related headaches are older people, females, those with pre-existing sensitivity to light (up to 75% of people with migraine have heightened sensitivity to light at all times), and people who already have corrective glasses or contacts.
The impact of screen time on headaches is even more pronounced in patients with a history of Traumatic Brain Injury or concussion, with over 90% reporting worsened headache or vision with screen use. Further, screen time correlates with slowed and delayed recovery for these patients. For the many people who use their computers or phones for 4-8 hours a day, the effect is even greater.
Blue Light Explained
Exposure to certain frequencies of light are more likely to trigger headaches, especially light from the blue and green part of the spectrum. Unfortunately, it is difficult to avoid blue-green light because most visible light is along that wavelength (480 nanometers). Sunlight, fluorescent lights and the screens of computers, phones and TVs emit blue light.
Additionally troublesome for the headache sufferer is that blue light impacts sleep patterns and other bodily functions. When you are exposed only to sunlight, a part of your brain called the hypothalamus releases melatonin as the sun goes down, and melatonin is broken down into serotonin. Irregularities with serotonin in the brain are strongly associated with migraines, so this is likely one reason too much screen time can trigger a migraine. When you are exposed to artificial light, including screens and fluorescent lights, less melatonin is released, leading to more headaches.
How to Prevent Screen-time Headaches
Let’s be frank: For most people it is virtually impossible to eliminate or significantly reduce screen exposure. Here are some tips to reduce your risk of screen time-induced headaches:
- If you wear corrective glasses or contacts, make sure your prescription is up-to-date, or get a prescription if you need one and don’t have one yet. This will avoid eyestrain and the headaches it can trigger.
- Keep your glasses and your screen clean, and position the screen to avoid glare — this makes it easier to see, reducing eye strain.
- Use blue light-blocking glasses, apply a blue light- blocking screen protector, or install a blue light-blocking software program on your device. You can get blue light-blocking glasses that do not contain any magnification or correction or have a blue light filter added to corrective glasses.
- Adjust the brightness of your screen to match the ambient lighting in the room. The less your eye has to adjust between the two different levels of light, the less the eye strain. There are some computer programs that will automatically do that for you.
- Increase the font size of print so you don’t need to squint as you read.
- Place the monitor straight ahead of you at eye level rather than off to the side, to reduce neck strain and slouching, and approximately two feet away from your face to minimize eye strain.
- Increase the refresh rate of your monitor or device. The refresh rate is how often the screen renews the image. When the refresh rate is too low, there is a flicker you may not be aware of, but which causes your eyes to strain more.
- Adjust the View mode on your computer to what you use most — photo or text.
- Work on good posture and take frequent breaks to stretch to avoid muscle spasm in your neck and back.
- Take screen breaks. If you must be on a screen all day for work, look for opportunities throughout the day to give your eyes a break. If you can, turn a video meeting into a phone call. If you’re watching a long movie at night, take a popcorn break to give your eyes a rest.
The Bottom Line
While screen time is more or less an essential part of modern life, following these guidelines and being conscious of how screens impact your body can help you reduce the frequency and intensity of screen-related headaches.
About the Author
Charisse Litchman MD, FAHS is a neurologist, headache specialist, and medical advisor to Nurx. She received her undergraduate degree at Wesleyan University and her medical degree at Yale School of Medicine. After completing her internship at Yale New Haven Hospital, she completed her neurology residency at Cornell-New York Hospital. She began a solo private practice in general neurology and became board certified in headache medicine in 2008. A former Assistant Professor of Clinical Neurology at Yale School of Medicine, Charisse has published articles in headaches and multiple sclerosis and edited the first textbook on a rare soft tissue tumor. She has earned a certificate in Medical Editing and Writing from the University of Chicago. Charisse has three children and lives in Connecticut with her husband Mark and her two dogs.
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