The problem was a little hard to isolate b/c there were a number of competing problems. In addition, one issue can actually lead to the other.
I thought I'd share what I figured out, what I did, and some random tips/tricks in the hopes it helps people out there. I know I'm not the only software engineer / office worker that has to deal with these problems.
Of course a DISCLAIMER, I'm not a medical professional.
Part 1 - What I was doing Wrong
1) Not Blinking / Focusing Too Hard
As a software engineer, you unfortunately have to stare at a computer a good part of the day. You probably also have to stare at your phone too. If you're like me, some video games after work to relax or reading a book at night might be adding to the problem.
Apparently human beings, when concentrating, blink less than they normally do. This is bad. Blinking adds moisture and other teary goodness/oils to your eyes. When you blink less, your eyes can dry out. When you blink less, your eyes aren't clearing out dust/allergens like they normally are.
I'll let you Google for yourself about strategies to blink more, but it took some time to retrain myself to do this.
2) Not Taking Breaks
It goes without saying that when you're sitting at a desk all day, it can effect your eyes. Your ocular muscles are no different than any other muscle in your body. When they get fatigued they begin to get sore.
Taking a break to look off into the distance and just relax your eyes from staring at a monitor is a great break. Eye strain itself can lead to dry eyes too.
There is a general 20-20-20 rule that's stated on many websites. Every twenty minutes, stare off in the distance of atleast 20 feet, for 20 seconds.
I didn't necessarily follow this, but the general rule of take a lot of breaks and stare off into the distance is a good idea. I now force myself to get up and walk around the hall atleast every hour. I also try to go for a longer walk every afternoon. I used a timer on my phone to force this at one point, but I just know to do this now.
3) Not having good ergonomics
While my ergonomic setting wasn't terrible, it wasn't ideal and probably exacerbated a number of issues. Luckily I have an ergonomic evaluator at work that found the following problems for me.
- Keep your computer monitor below your eyes / Keep the top of the monitor at the top of your vision level. If your monitor is above you vision line, you open up your eyes more, which can lead to your eyes drying out.
- Your monitor should be about 20-28 inches in front of you. Mine was 32 or more inches away, which can lead more eye strain.
- Although I've been at my desk for many years, I have an air vent above my desk. Likely not the biggest culprit, but it was likely a contributor to drying out my eyes.
This goes without saying, get your eyes checked. Squinting can increase eye strain & dry eyes too.
It ends up that my vision was actually fine. I was actually squinting b/c of my dry eyes and seasonal allergies. I didn't want to open my eyes as wide to avoid having them dry out.
5) Running a fan at night
When it's hot during the summer, I sometimes run a fan by my bed to keep me cool. Bad idea as the air / wind can totally dry out your eyes.
6) AC + Allergies
These are the two factors that are sort of not in my control but probably exacerbated the problem for me. If all of the above happened during the winter (minus the fan at the night), things might have been more tolerable.
Air conditioning can dry out the air and lower the humidity in your home and working environment.
Allergies are controllable through all the normal mechanisms, but there are circumstances you can't control b/c you have to be outside at some point.
Part 2 - What to do
1) Eye Drops
So you can buy various over the counter eye drops to help with dry eyes and/or allergies. However, I would caution to buy anything w/ preservatives in them. I unfortunately seemed to be sensitive / allergic to several of them, which made my problem worse for awhile.
My understanding is that you need to keep at it for awhile. If your eyes have been really dried out, the tear film has been weakened. Using eye drops for awhile can help moisturize your eyes making you feel better, but at the same time it gives your eyes more opportunity to heal.
2) Use warm / cold compresses
Using warm & cold compresses helped my eyes rest / heal. You can use normal towels with water or ice, but you can actually buy compresses that are specific to your eyes. They are far more convenient.
However, it is important differentiate when to use warm or cold compresses. It was hard for me to figure out what was what and when to use what. What I eventually figured out was:
- eye strain - your eyes are sore, tired, or fatigued in some fashion. Imagine you're sore after running, it's that kind of feeling with your eyes. Just like with sore muscles, warm or cold compress are good to relax your muscles / lower inflammation in muscles.
- allergies - your eyes may be dry, but the core differentiator is there is some itchiness or inflammation (which to me felt like my eyes were "big" or swelling). Use a cold compress to reduce inflammation. A warm compress here is bad. If your eyes are redder after using a warm compress, I think that's an indicator it's allergies and not dry eyes.
- dry eyes - your eyes feel sticky or not well, but it isn't itchy or have any feeling of inflammation, use a warm compress to create tears and oil. I suppose cold compresses wouldn't hurt here, but they probably don't help.
3) Massaging your eyes
I eventually realized that some muscle tension built up in the muscles around my eyes, likely contributing to the eye strain.
You can look up your own massage your eye videos on Youtube, but the core massages that helped were:
- massage your temples
- massage the muscles around your temple / connected to your temple
- massage your eyebrows
- massage your forehead area / muscles connected to our eye brows
- massage around your eye socket
- massage the pressure points around your eye & nose
- massage the middle point between your eyebrows and above your nose
As much as we all have work to do, the best thing to do is just rest. Stop looking at a computer whenever you can.
5) Turned off the lights
It ends up I did have some sensitivity to the fluorescent lights in my office. I read online that it's a fairly common issue for people who have dry eyes. After all, part of your tear film has been weakened, so it makes sense. Luckily for me I work in my own office, so I could just turn off the lights and only suffer them in meeting rooms until things got better.
It's also possible my monitor was old and bright and/or flickering. Turning down the brightness helped as well as looking at my laptop (which for some reason was better).
It sucks to add moisture to the air when its hot outside, but it's important to keep the air reasonably humid and not too dry. I tried to just keep the humidity at about 40%. More can lead to mold growth in your house, etc.
7) Eye Exercises
So I'm not 100% positive about this, but there are anecdotal stories that eye exercises can help strengthen your ocular muscles and make eye strain less of an issue. My ophthalmologist suggested pencil push-ups which I did for awhile. I'm not sure how much it helped or not.
However, after I started playing Fallout 4 (a first person shooter video game) my eye strain at work started to get a lot better. The first night I played Fallout 4, I had a terrible headache the next day. Then, as time went on the headaches didn't happen anymore and my eye strain began to get better (both at work and playing the game).
I'm no doctor, but I could see that first person shooters are an "intense" ocular workout as you have to move your eyes around a lot. It makes sense that the ocular muscles could have been built up a bit.
8) Have patience
It can take a lot of time, likes many months.
Good luck to anyone out there who read this.