When you have light sensitive eyes glare and brightness are the most important issue to tackle when figuring out how to prevent eye strain from computer work. But you also have to make sure to prevent against other sources of eye strain. Otherwise you run the risk of the negative effects of computer work summing up. To that end, there are several computer programs that can help you prevent eye strain and other computer related Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI). In this post I first answer the questions what is repetitive strain injury and what is computer eye strain. Then I suggest 10 anti repetitive strain injury apps.
Eye strain – a repetitive strain injury
Eye strain is a repetitive strain injury. Repetitive strain injury, or RSI, is an injury to the musculoskeletal (bones of the skeleton, muscles, cartilage, tendons, ligaments, joints, and other connective tissue that supports and binds tissues and organs together) and nervous systems. Repetitive strain injury may be caused by repetitive tasks, forceful exertions, vibrations, mechanical compression, or sustained or awkward positions. Repetitive strain injury is sometimes also referred to as cumulative trauma disorder, repetitive stress injury, repetitive motion injury/disorder, musculoskeletal disorder and occupational or sports overuse syndrome.
If you use a computer regularly you are at risk and should know about repetitive strain injury. Traditionally computer work related repetitive strain injury has been associated with pain in fingers, palms, wrists, forearms and shoulders. Repetitive strain injury normally results from overusing the hands to perform a repetitive task, such as typing, clicking a mouse, or writing. The three primary repetitive strain injury risk factors are poor posture, poor technique, and overuse. The pain may be burning, aching, or shooting. It could be local, for example fingertips, or diffuse, for example the entire forearm. The pain will typically be increased after a long session of computer use although it is possible to have severe repetitive strain injury without experiencing pain.
Video: Sitting! – an (in)activity prone to repetitive strain injury
Recently, however, repetitive strain injury is also being increasingly associated with the eyes and is denominated as computer eye strain, computer vision syndrome (CVS) or digital eye strain.
What is computer eye strain
Computer eye strain is the physical discomfort felt after two or more hours in front of a computer screen. (Digital eye strain refers to physical discomfort associated with heavy use of any digital screen device – laptop computers, tablets, e-readers, smart phones). Computer eye strain is a consequence of the close to mid-range distance between the eyes of the user and the screen.
Nowadays many of us use a computer and other digital devices for work. With respect to repetitive strain injury and specifically eye strain, a heavy user is a person who uses digital devices more than two to four hours a day. However, according to The Vision Council 2015 Report:
- 40% of people aged 18-50 spend 9 hours or more per day looking at digital device screens
- 60% of people use digital devices more than 5 hours per day
- 93% of people use digital devices more than 2 hours per day
Consequently we increasingly experience eye strain which influences our well-being and work productivity.
Computer eye strain results from heavy computer use
Eye strain symptoms
If you are reading this, there is a good chance that you are a heavy computer user and you are probably already experiencing some of the following symptoms of eye strain:
- blurred vision
- neck pain
- redness in the eyes
- eye strain
- dry eyes
- irritated eyes
- double vision
- difficulty refocusing the eyes
Symptoms Commonly Associated with Overexposure to Digital Devices
These symptoms can be further aggravated by air moving past the eyes (overhead vents, direct air from a fan) or improper lighting conditions (glare or bright overhead lighting). Needless to say, all these symptoms are much more disturbing when one has extremely light sensitive eyes – some level of photophobia.
How to prevent eye strain from computer work
Here is a list of frequently given tips on how to prevent eye strain:
- position your screen about an arm’s length from your eyes with the top of the screen just below your eye level
- set color and contrast tones to suit your eyes, and match the brightness of your screen with your surroundings. (I have written about these issues here and here)
- minimize reflected glare on your screen by using dimmer switches on lights and a protective anti-glare screen cover. Also consider positioning your screen so that it sits perpendicular to windows and other bright light sources. If you are having trouble locating the source of the glare, turn off your monitor, then tilt and swivel your monitor until the reflection disappears (see also my posts on how to reduce glare on computer screen here and here, and on how to set up glare and reflection free computer lighting)
- keep your screen free of fingerprints and dust, as both can reduce visual clarity
- if you alternate between looking at your screen and paperwork, consider obtaining a clipboard that attaches alongside your monitor so that the two are at the same working distance and similar brightness
- use the 20-20-20-20 rule. Every 20 minutes take a 20 second break and focus your eyes – it is important to focus (not just stare) – on something at least 20 feet away while blinking 20 times. This will give your eyes a much-needed break, it will relax the eye muscles which are contracted for close-up computer viewing, and reduce some of the symptoms mentioned earlier. If you are not near a window, use a photograph that you may put on a wall – preferably of nature and focus on details. Blinking is very important as it prevents dry eyes. Blinking rate tends to drop significantly when working intensely with a computer. We normally blink 12 times per minute, but when we’re on the computer, our blinking rate drops to mere 5 times per minute!
- ask for anti-reflective coatings on the lenses of your glasses, which can be applied at the time of manufacturing, to protect your eyes from bright and/or flickering light sources such as fluorescent lights
How to prevent eye strain and other repetitive strain injuries: use the computer to help you out
Personally, I have found all of the above tips effective. In preventing eye strain it is particularly useful to take frequent breaks to refocus and blink (the 20/20/20/20 rule) and also to stretch out and exercise muscles and joints that are prone to computer related repetitive strain injury.
My greatest struggle, however, was in finding a way to remind myself to take breaks. For a long time I tried to do it with the alarm clock on my mobile phone. Then I discovered that there are many apps that can help you with that. Most anti repetitive strain injury apps tend to remind you when to:
- take short / micro brakes, which you can use for the 20/20/20/20 rule
- take a longer 5-10 minute break (every hour or so) – some apps also suggest a set of exercises which help you prevent computer eye strain and other computer-work-related repetitive strain injuries
- stop working, as you have reached your daily/weekly limit
Most apps allow you to personalize your daily limit. They also let you set the frequency and the duration of your brakes, both the short and the long ones. In general the apps let you skip or postpone your breaks (this is handy because sometimes breaks do come at really bad times). However, you will still need to be disciplined enough to take due breaks at the earliest, more convenient (less inconvenient) time.
10 anti repetitive strain injury apps
1. Workrave (GNU/Linux and MS Windows) – free
I use Workrave, which assists in the recovery and prevention of Repetitive Strain Injury. Workrave frequently alerts you to take micro-pauses, longer rest breaks, suggests exercises and restricts you to your daily limit. You can customize the frequency and the duration of your breaks for what you feel optimally prevents eye strain and other repetitive strain injuries. Workrave allows you to enable or disable the options to skip or postpone your pauses, breaks and daily limit. Workrave is one of the more widely used program to combat Repetitive Strain Injury.
A Workrave instructional video
2. Coffee Break (Mac OS)
Coffee Break lets you schedule your day – imagine your Mac telling you with bold actions that you have been sitting in front of the screen too long or that you need a break to prevent repetitive strain injury. Coffee Break has a mechanism that refuses to do anything else for you until you rest your eyes and grab some fresh air going for a walk. Coffee Break was featured by Apple as a Staff favorite app.
An introductory video to Coffee Break
3. EyeLeo (MS Windows) – free
EyeLeo has been designed specifically to prevent eye strain. It is a handy PC application that regularly reminds you to take short breaks regularly. EyeLeo features screen blocking long breaks every hour (a notification will announce that a long break is coming). You may set the frequency of short breaks (every 3, 5, 8, 10 or 15 minutes). A charming leopard will show you the eye strain preventing eye exercises you should be doing during each break. The strict mode option allows you to force yourself not to skip the breaks. EyeLeo comes with multi-monitor system support.
A video tutorial of EyeLeo
4. BreakTime (Mac OS, iOS)
BreakTime is a simple utility that’s designed to help you remember to take breaks away from your computer in order to prevent repetitive strain injury. It never forgets a break, running in your dock and / or menu bar (or even in the background). BreakTime allows you to customize the time between breaks and the length of a break. You can set BreakTime to “enforce breaks” to make sure you prevent eye strain. BreakTime also features some other advanced options.
BreakTime introductory video
5. EyeDefender (MS Windows) – free
EyeDefender is a freeware rest reminder specifically designed to prevent computer eye strain (Computer Vision Syndrome – CVS) resulting from working on a computer for hours. EyeDefender’s allows you to set your breaks’ frequency and duration. Most other features are similar to those of other computer eye strain preventive apps. A differentiating feature might be the eye exercises it proposes. Your “visual training” exercises are aided by different objects that appear on your screen and move around it. In this way EyeDefender invites your eyes to refocus and stretch your eye muscles (see the video below).
A video featuring EyeDefender’s visual training
Time Out (Mac OS) – free
Time Out is a simple and straight forward break timer for Mac OS X. It helps you prevent eye strain and other repetitive strain injuries by reminding you to take micro-breaks and longer breaks on a regular basis. You can configure how long each kind of break lasts, and how long between breaks. Each Time Out is announced via the screen slowly dimming, with related graphics materializing, and when the break is over, it fades out again. You can change the time these transitions take, the color, and the level of transparency during the break.
A video presentation of Time Out’s features
7. WorkPace (MS Windows) – 30 day free trial
WorkPace is one of the most sophisticated computer ergonomics packages available and a safe route to prevent eye strain. WorkPace helps you prevent repetitive strain injury by monitoring your mouse and keyboard use. Using personalized settings the software then displays small pop-up windows, suggesting the best times for taking regular breaks (micro and macro pauses). Warning messages are shown when the computer has been used more than self-determined maximums and at regular intervals a regime of onscreen exercises is displayed. WorkPace has many features and is very customizable.
First-time WorkPace users will find a thorough introductory video as well as a configuration wizard to help them get started. The wizard asks you about your work habits and then creates a schedule of breaks that best suits you. You can choose how strict you want WorkPace to be. You can set WorkPace to merely remind you to take a break or “force” you to do it by locking your keyboard. WorkPace allows you to set daily and weekly time limits on how much you work.
8. RSIGuard (MS Windows, Mac OS) – 45 day free trial
RSIGuard is an award-winning desktop ergonomic software solution that reduces repetitive strain injuries. A comprehensive set of tools to proactively identify risks of repetitive strain injuries early, reduce the risk of injuries, increase injury prevention program efficiency. When it comes to repetitive strain injury prevention RSIGuard has everything you can imagine and more.
An introductory video of RSIGuard
More videos on RSIGuard channel.
9. Awareness (MS Windows, Mac OS) – free
If you want a very simple app to remind you to take a break, then Awareness is it. Its only function is to tell you to take a break in the most unobtrusive way possible: by the sound of a Tibetan singing bowl. You set how long your work time is, the break time and the volume of the sound then let it do the rest. What anti repetitive strain injury exercises (if any) to do in your break is completely up to you.
A video introduction to Awareness
10. Protect Your Vision (web app for Chrome, Firefox, Safari 6) – free
Protect Your Vision is a web app, a very simple answer to the question How to prevent eye strain. PYV is a personal assistant (a friendly robot) that will remind you at certain periods to take a short rest. Protect Your Vision comes with two recommendations: take a 20 second break every 20 minutes of work by focusing on an object 20 feet away (the 20-20-20 rule) or take a 5 minute break every 60 minutes. If neither suits you, you can create your own custom break.
What are your ideas on how to prevent eye strain and other, computer related, repetitive strain injuries?
Credits: Repetitive Strain Injury drawing from Chinavasion.
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2 thoughts on “How to prevent eye strain: 10 anti Repetitive Strain Injury apps”
Thank you for the very informative post. I am currently downloading Workrave to my laptop so that I can get up and move and focus on something else other than my screen for hours at a time.
Anna, that is great! I am glad you found the post useful as I am sure you will also be the case Workrave. Do come back and let me know how if you are feeling better. 🙂 Uroš