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My vision is worse than average for software developers. In addition to accuity (not the subject of this question), one problem I have is light-sensitivity. I find that staring at a computer monitor all day with the standard Windows black-on-white scheme is painfully bright.

I already have anti-glare treatment on my computer glasses (a special pair tuned for the monitor focal distance), and I've dialed down the brightness on my monitors (LCD) as far as it will go. I've walked through the temperature-color settings on the monitor to find the combination that, to my uneducated eye, looks best, and I've walked through all the display settings in the Windows control panel, including the acessibility ones. My opthalmologist is not technically savvy and does not have specific advice to offer (beyond the special glasses).

Even so the screen was too bright (headache within the hour), so I switched to a reverse-video scheme (light tan on dark brown rather than white on black, which seems more comfortable). This works well in general, but some applications and some web sites hard-wire colors that then don't work for me (for example, hard-wiring black text without setting a background color). It seems I would be better off if I could switch back to a dark-on-light scheme (not necessarily black-on-white but something more muted), if I could figure out how to make it work.

So my question is: with a dark-on-light color scheme, what strategies can I use to reduce the bombardment of light-colored pixels that hurts my eyes? My desk is in a dark corner of an open-seating plan (though I have two full-height walls). There are overhead fluorescents nearby but I've gotten the ones closest to my space turned off. I am free to add any type of lamp and change my monitor settings. I am not free to install new software (except via a long approval process that often ends with "no"). OS is Windows XP now, but answers for Windows 7 will also be welcome (we'll be moving to that). I see flicker at 60Hz so avoid fluorescents.

Trying every possible combination of {Windows control panel, monitor color/brightness, Windows color scheme, desk lamp} is combinatorically implausible, hence this question.

  • What browser are you using? Is your problem primarily with webpages? (For instance, would the ability to force a custom stylesheet onto dark-on-light websites solve most of your problem?) – sheepeeh Apr 24 '12 at 20:07
  • I use Firefox (with Stylish, but I'm a CSS neo) when I can, and IE for some sites that don't work in Firefox. But in reverse-video I also have problems with Office 2007 (that big bright white/blue background is hard-coded), Adobe Reader (hard-coded large white frame), and some others, and I have to customize individual programs (IntelliJ, emacs, Eclipse, etc) one at a time. It seems like more things would "just work" if I could switch back, much as I'd like to stay with reverse-video (maybe that's a separate question but it seems too localized). – Monica Cellio Apr 24 '12 at 20:19
  • You mention that you have glare-treated glasses - are they properly polarized to effectively eliminate reflections in your monitor (i.e. when you look at a dark area on your screen you don't see anything reflected/shiny)? – voretaq7 Apr 25 '12 at 5:57
  • @voretaq7, if I shine a light near the monitor (matt finish) I do see a reflection, so I guess the answer is "no". I've arranged my space so that there is no light shining on my monitors (my back is against a full-height wall). – Monica Cellio Apr 25 '12 at 16:33
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    @JeffO that somebody has a similar problem in a different setting doesn't make it off-topic here. This is a workplace problem, and we have plenty of questions that are about ergonomics, or getting along with other people, or working in teams (to name just a few) that are workplace but not exclusively workplace issues. I don't see how this is different. – Monica Cellio Mar 4 '15 at 18:49

10 Answers 10

17

One thing no-one else has mentioned: keep your glasses scrupulously clean.

I find that if my glasses are even slightly dirty, for instance a single light fingerprint, I start getting eye-strain much more quickly.

I usually clean my glasses by washing them in soapy water, and then drying them with either a previously unused tissue or a lint free cloth. The important thing is to remove any trace of dust or grease that could cause vision to be blurred or tempt the eye to refocus on the glasses lens itself.

The reason I wash with soapy water is that it's the only practical way to actually remove the grease rather than just spread it around. Typical glasses cleaning cloths usually just soak up grease for the first few days but after that they start to deposit it back on the glasses, so I have never found them useful.

My levels of eye strain also reduced significantly when I started taking the advice of the UK Health and Safety Executive advice and positioned my monitor such that the top of my monitor was at eye level (Working with VDUs 740k pdf). This left my monitors at a much steeper angle (rather than angled up, with me looking down on it), resulting in fewer reflections from behind me and this also completely eliminated reflections of ceiling lights. Few monitors have enough height adjustment to allow this without a monitor stand, but getting this right is well worth the investment.

You may also find that if your current LCD display has a gloss coating, then a matt coating might suit you better. Matt screens are often criticised for not being as bright or as vibrant, but they can eliminate or at least substantially reduce reflections which will be even more of a problem if you generally use a dark background.

Also, a high quality screen with a wider brightness range, a high contrast ratio, and better black levels at low brightness could allow you to create a more comfortable workstation. Plus, if you argue that it will increase your productivity, then business case of a more expensive monitor should be fairly straightforward.

Finally, make sure your glasses prescription is up to date. Nothing will give you eye-strain more quickly than an out of date prescription. I would rather have replacement lenses every year than a new designer frame every other year and in the UK all VDU workers are entitled to claim the cost of one eye test per year from their employer.

  • Thanks. I see my ophtalmologist multiple times a year and get new glasses every two years, so I'm pretty confident about the prescription. I routinely wash glasses just with hot water, though, so I'll make soap a regular part of that routine. (I find myself wiping them off, without washing them, many times a day, using a microfiber cloth to prevent scratches.) My monitors actually sit a bit above eye level, not below; eye level is about 25% down from the top. – Monica Cellio Apr 25 '12 at 16:40
  • What should I look for in monitor specs to identify ones with wider brightness ranges, hgiher contrast, and better black levels? – Monica Cellio Apr 25 '12 at 16:41
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    @MonicaCellio - It's difficult to see from manufacturer specs alone (they often over state dynamic contrast), but good review sites like tftcentral, anandtech or Toms Hardware go into more depth. You may also want to check out your own monitor with the Lagom tests. For myself, I was so impressed with my Dell U2412M at work that I bought a pair for home (I couldn't afford a pair of U2410's *8'). – Mark Booth Apr 25 '12 at 16:52
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    On high-quality monitors: I got myself an IPS monitor (cheaper ones are usually TN) and it has made a huge difference for me. Never going back! – Monica Cellio Oct 18 '16 at 15:09
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To help your eyestrain you need to take your eyes off the screen in front of you and change your focus at regular intervals. Our sight works by detecting edges and movement and works best if our eyes are constantly looking at new things at different distances and in different light conditions.

You don't have to do this every 10 minutes, but every hour (or so) you should turn away from the screen and look at something in the middle or far distance. If you can see a window from where you sit so much the better. Getting up and talking a walk will help - you can combine this with a toilet or coffee break.

Get your eyes tested and if you need prescription lenses wear them. You might need to get a pair of glasses specifically for computer work. Changing these for your regular glasses (or no glasses) when you take your breaks is also a good idea.

If you are still using a CRT monitor try to increase the refresh rate to 85Hz. This should eliminate the flicker. Better still would be to swap it for an LCD monitor that doesn't flicker.

The "computer" glasses you see advertised don't really do anything other than tint the view and possibly magnify slightly. They are not a substitute for prescription lenses. For example, two of the major "selling" points from the "Steelseries Scope" site (which are no longer available at SteelSeries, though Gunnar still offer glasses with these "technologies") jump out at me:

I-AMP® LENSES
Enhance the properties of the human eye and its interaction with digital devices

This is pure marketing speak and therefore meaningless.

SHARPEN SIGHT
Enhance details for sharper, clearer vision

The lenses are slightly magnifying. If you don't need glasses this could end up causing eye-strain and headaches.

Steer well clear.

  • Thanks for the reply. I do already have prescription computer glasses (I see I only said "computer"; I forgot that there are non-prescription ones too), and my monitors are LCD. Changing focus is a good idea; fortunately, I drink enough Diet Coke to cause me to get up and walk around at least once an hour anyway. :-) – Monica Cellio Apr 25 '12 at 0:43
  • +1 for "get up and take a walk". Try to take at least 5-10 minutes away from your monitor every 2 hours or so. Even a brief walk to the coffee machine makes your eyes focus at different distances, and on things that aren't backlit - both of which help with eye strain. – voretaq7 Apr 25 '12 at 6:02
12

Are you sure it's brightness? I know a number of people that have issues with "flicker" causing headaches after an hour or so. The headaches are usually in the cluster or migraine family which can significantly amplify light-sensitivity.

There are multiple people in my office that swear by these glasses to prevent eyestrain and reduce headaches.

Another former colleague of mine would have the fluorescent overhead lights use a green-tint lightbulb rather than the normal ones to reduce the impact of the flicker.

Finally, it might be the refresh rate on your monitor. Most likely your monitor is refreshing at a rate of 60 hertz. For some very sensitive people, this is too slow. You might see if you can somehow borrow or test out a monitor with a higher refresh rate.

Do you encounter the same issue if you watch TV for an extended period of time? What is the refresh rate on your television?

  • I hadn't realized that flicker could be problematic on LCDs. Back when I had CRTs the flicker drove me nuts unless it was 85Hz+; when I switched to LCD that stopped. Hmm. The (only available) refresh rate on my work monitors is 60Hz; I'll check TV and home monitor when I'm home later. I have not noticed eye fatigue with either of those, though I don't tend to stare at them for as long as I do my work computer (2-4 hrs vs 7-9). – Monica Cellio Apr 24 '12 at 21:34
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    Those glasses look fantastic! I had no idea such things were available -- must check those out. (Once or twice, after having my eyes dilated for an exam, I've worn my amber sunglasses at work, though that was a tad dark. Right color, though.) – Monica Cellio Apr 24 '12 at 21:35
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    @MonicaCellio - the glasses will do nothing to help your eyesight unless they have prescription lenses in them. The ones linked to probably "work" because they are convex and therefore slightly magnifying. – ChrisF Apr 24 '12 at 22:10
  • @ChrisF, thanks. It looks like those ones are tinted (and I hope treated to resist glare), and they say they can do prescription. Before I sink the money on getting my prescription made I'd want to try them out, but it appears that might be possible locally. – Monica Cellio Apr 25 '12 at 0:45
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    @Monica the refresh rate of the LCD does not have much to do with flickering. I see no difference between 40 and 60hz on my current display, despite seeing flickering on other displays on low brightness. The flickering is caused by the techniques used to dim the backlight, this is most often done by quickly turning the backlight on and off (PWM). More expensive displays usually flicker at higher frequencies. Putting the brightness higher usually lowers the flickering. The website TFT central has some additional info on this: tftcentral.co.uk/articles/flicker_free_database.htm – Stefan May 7 '14 at 14:51
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It sounds like you need something a little bit more powerful than the Windows color schemes tool (basically something that intercepts the whole graphics stream at the video card and tweaks it)?

A little googling lead me to PowerStrip, which seems to be able to tweak color curves and gamma globally. It might be able to help you out with taming the stray pixels that Windows isn't catching.

Caveat: I'm a Mac/Unix guy - I know nothing about this software except what I read in this forum thread and on the manufacturer's site, so while it looks promising it's equally possible I'm talking out my behind.

3

If possible, buy a humidifier and place it at your side, pointed at your face. Worked wonders for me, it turned out dry eyes were most of my problem. Even if it can't put a dent in dryness of the whole office, it will improve the local humidity where you sit. I just asked the nearest co-workers, placed it there, and waited for the order to take it down, which never came. Might be a better strategy than to seek official permission... I do hear the occasional joke, but no hostility.

Additionally, look at the keyboard shortcuts that allow you to quickly change color schemes. They allow you to use a dark background some of the time, then quickly switch back to normal if it gets in your way.

  • Alt+Shift+PrintScreen shortcut on Windows, which revert the colors to dark-on-light and back on Windows and MS Office. (also turns icons huge, but you can configure that away).

    Some Office documents will dissappear as you described, revert the changes for those with the same key combination. Finally learned the difference between "Automatic" and "Black" text colors: Black stays black when you invert the colors.

    Notepad++ is compatible with this shortcut. Your IDE might also be.

  • Ctrl+K, then Alt+R on Adobe Reader. The first time over, you'll need to press Ctrl+K, then click your way into the Acessibility section and choose your color scheme. My favorite is the old-timey green-on-black. After that, Ctrl+K, then Alt+R, then Enter key will switch there and back.

Finally, experiment with decreasing screen contrast. My subjective experience is that it further reduces actual screen brightness, even if nominal brightness is already at minimum. Of course, it's only worth it while you can still see well enough without approaching the screen.

  • I never found one such handy shortcut for web browsers. Perhaps someone else did? – Emilio M Bumachar Mar 4 '15 at 6:41
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For several years after starting to use a computer, I found that the usual bright white screen with black text was making my writing and reading time less. My eyes just could not handle it. You know, even an lcd screen is a light source.

I found a now defunct website in Canada that was for poor spellers and dyslexia. Their background was a middle, muted green tone, and text was the normal black. I loved it. I use that scheme on my laptop now and can read and write much better and longer. Indeed I am still looking at a light source but the color background does indeed reduce the amount of light directed at your eyes.

I am not working anymore and not due to vision problems. I wish I would have thought of this color scheme back then. You do not have to use green, you can use any color or shade of grey, just don't make it a vivid color. AND NEVER GO TO WHITE TEXT ON A DARK BACKGROUND. That causes even more eyestrain than the prevailing white screen with black text.

I have an older computer with xp os. I cannot use the latest IE browser. It won't change background color. But I use chrome now and they have an excellent little simple extension that allows you to mix your color and choose your font.

Also, I have found that large fonts keep my attention better.

Note: You will lose some icons and other click ons. You simply click your widget extension icon, go back to white screen briefly click what you want, and then quickly go back to your own color writing and reading. It is saved, you don't have to create a new color scheme every time you go back to white screen.

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1

Having suffered from chronic eye strain for 4 years, being to 12 ophthalmologists and finally figuring out the problem, I have advice that will surely help you:

First, a word of caution: remember that ophthalmology has become a business now. Don't trust everything the doctor says. Verify it yourself. Now, if you tell a doctor you have eye strain, they are very likely to check you for astigmatism and give you a prescription even if you don't have astigmatism. So if you do get a prescription and aren't able to wear those lenses for more than 10 or 20 minutes, then you can be sure you don't have astigmatism.

Few things to check:

  1. Are you getting at least 7 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night? If no, then that's your primary problem. Apart from stress, the other thing that causes sleep problems is bad food. If your food is either slightly burnt, slightly uncooked or of bad quality, you'll lose sleep. Home cooked food is best. Food served in restaurants are notorious for either these points I've mentioned or for spreading H.Pylori which destroys your stomach and makes you lose sleep. The eyes need that critical 7 hours of continuous sleep to recover from a day's strain. If you are having interrupted sleep, then that's not good enough. It takes around 6 months or more to get back to a normal sleep cycle.

  2. Are you wearing plastic lenses? Strange as it sounds (nobody believed me at first), before I realized I wasn't getting enough sleep, the first thing that gave me a huge relief from the eye strain was glass lenses. Just ordinary glass lenses. No special coatings; nothing. Everyone will tell you that plastic lenses make no difference, but that's not true. I've personally experienced my eyes being strained more when I use plastic lenses. Switch over to glass lenses. They are cheaper and I haven't broken mine for two years already.

  3. Are you taking rest every now and then? Whenever you feel strained, just close your eyes until the strain subsides. It's very important to do this. Nothing else works. Looking at far away objects does not work. Exercising the eye does not work. Splashing water into the eyes does not work. Eye drops do not work. Just close your eyes.

Reducing eye strain is actually just that simple. You don't have to spend a fortune on filling the pockets of the eye industry. Oh and especially stay away from eye specialty hospitals/clinics. They have every incentive to extract money from you because they have no other source of income. Instead, go to a general hospital or a medical college. For 95% of diseases, you don't need to go to a specialty hospital/clinic. An ordinary general hospital will do.

Perhaps this would also help: http://nrecursions.blogspot.in/2014/11/ophthalmology-has-long-way-to-go.html

Take care of your eyes, and do let me know in the comments, about the improvement you feel.

  • This seems more a rant about professional and if they do gibe you a prescription for astigmatism and you don't that sounds like fraud and I would call the police. I would trust medical professionals a lot more than information from the internet like this – Mark May 14 '16 at 15:21
  • I assure you Mark, this is not a rant. These are my experiences after suffering a lot and then recovering. These doctors aren't frauds either. Some were genuine people known to my family. My own brother is a doc and I know from him how much of guess-work docs have to do. If you want to know about fraud, see this and the video that follows it: youtube.com/watch?v=pNsTUxC4qxw Moreover, I work in the healthcare software industry and know how revenues are targeted. – Nav May 14 '16 at 16:38
  • Thanks for the suggestions. I didn't know that sleep affected eye strain; do you happen to know where I could go to learn more about that? I do take breaks during the day (I also get up and walk around frequently). Unfortunately, my prescription is strong enough that even plastic lenses are pretty heavy; I don't know if I could bear the weight of glass. (The strong prescription is legitimate; my eyes really are that bad, and have been since childhood.) – Monica Cellio May 15 '16 at 3:24
  • Just google for "sleep affecting eye strain". The only "break" that helped me was closing my eyes. Glass lenses with higher refractive indexes are thinner/lighter. For now try glass lenses, better sleep, properly cooked food and closing eyes during the day. Also keep a journal on what you tried and what gave you the most relief. I'm not a doc and this chat isn't the right way to do a medical diagnosis :-) You have to figure out what is causing your specific problem, if doc's didn't help. Safe trial and error with documentation, helps. – Nav May 15 '16 at 9:04
  • @MonicaCellio How are you feeling now? and what have you tried to reduce the strain? – Nav Oct 18 '16 at 14:27
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A few things that have helped me which are not mentioned in other answers:

(1) Monitors are cheaper and cheaper every year. I have two of them, in a shallow "V", and it feels subjectively that looking at things at different angles helps.

(2) While there are many tools I work with where I don't have control of color, for the configurable ones I use a wide variety of colors. Red text on a pinkish background, gray text on a blue background, brown on beige... it seems to help. (Some years I color code tasks, but right now I just pick a random color scheme on the fly each time I open a new window.)

(3) You can buy shade awnings for your desk that will block even more of the overhead glare. (At a previous workplace about a third of the people had giant green leaves over their desks, they were a standard ergo item.)

(4) Remember to blink frequently, and to look at something more than 20 yards away occasionally. WebMD says: "Follow the 20-20-20 rule. Look away from the screen every 20 minutes or so and look at something around 20 feet away for about 20 seconds. "

0

Depending on your age, you might be developing cataracts. From my personal experience I can relate. While I have very sensitive eyes it turns out that developing cataracts in my early 40s exacerbated the problem. Cataracts act as a diffuse filter to the light entering your eye. To get enough light for clear focus your eye then compensates by increasing your pupil dilation. The problem is that this increases the total light entering your eye and this causes very rapid eye fatigue. Overhead lights in particular cause a problem because the cataract scatters that light into the back of the eye.

-2

I use a program called F.Lux that modifies the temperature and other gamma/color settings in a way that significantly reduces eyestrain (at least for me).

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    OP has already mentioned that software solutionss are not going to work. – acolyte Jul 25 '12 at 13:42

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