Do you spend ample time staring at a computer screen? Do you feel like this contributes to a painful head? There is good evidence that you are on the money. Digital eye strain and cervicogenic headaches can each be triggered by backlit tech and desk neck, while migraines are exacerbated by light.
Why does the screen cause headaches?
That’s the right question! Understanding the cause or causes of headaches allows us to reverse engineer relief.
Digital eye strain is as its name suggests; the eyes become overworked and fatigue. As they do, headaches can flare. In addition, the American Optometric Association noted that uncorrected or under corrected vision problems make matters worse. Ocular abnormalities and eye problems often coexist with headaches. Discomfort in the forehead or a pain in the back of the skull is regularly experienced in those who have what’s called refractive and binocular vision problems.
Desk posture and position is key, too. Tilting your head to see through your spectacles, for example, can result in neck and shoulder pain. In turn, this can lead to cervicogenic headaches; that is, head pain caused by the neck. All of that leaning over your laptop screen isn't great for your posture or your head!
Then there are migraines. These severe, throbbing headaches often come with visual and sound disturbances, nausea and vomiting. Light can worsen this type of headache. Sometimes people describe it as a sword is intermittently being stabbed through their brain - doesn't sound fun, eh?
Who is most likely to suffer?
As with every condition, there is a group of people who are most likely to suffer. Let’s take a look at the risk factors for screen related headaches…
What makes someone more at risk?
Certain people face an increased risk of headaches, including those triggered by screen time. Could you, a colleague or a loved one be at higher risk?
A study published in the Journal of Headache and Pain found that, “time spent looking at smartphones, tablets, computer screens and televisions increases the risk of migraines.” The more you stare at a backlit display, the greater your chances of developing a migraine. The authors of this paper found that over two hours of screen time per day correlated with the highest risk. With COVID-19, social distancing and working from home, many people extend well past this timeframe. If your migraine frequency has jumped in 2020, this might be just why.
The colour of the projected light matters, too. Research has shown that blue, amber, red and white light is more likely to bring on migraines than green light. Blue light is also linked to eye damage, which is a risk factor on its own.
Because of our expertise, we’re sometimes asked, “Are some people more susceptible to blue light than others?” There's no evidence that implies this is the case. To date, it appears more likely that blue light’s damage extends across the board. Like too much sun, long term exposure can trigger small changes and large. Over time, these mount and can cause more damage.
As we mentioned earlier, eye abnormalities are known to trigger headache as well. Refractive vision problems include astigmatism, nearsightedness, farsightedness, and the loss of near vision that comes with age. Binocular vision problems occur when the eyes are, in essence, out of sync. Instead of working together to produce clear vision, they produce unsynchronised images that lead to jitteriness and eye fatigue.
The CDC has said that eight million Americans have a visual impairment due to an uncorrected refractive error… left uncorrected. An unknown or under-treated eye problem increases your risk of headaches. Is it time to schedule an eye examination? We think so.
Then there is the potential trigger of desk neck - which comes from bad posture. Neck and shoulder strain scales and all of that time bent over screens. Cervicogenic headaches can come as a result - and they're not fun.
Will using products help? And will this work for everyone?
Headaches are unpleasant, especially when they’re frequent. Thankfully, there are evidence based products to help. Of course, what works for you will depend on what causes your headache in the first place. Remember, this knowledge helps to reverse engineer relief.
With this in mind…
If you spend hours each day viewing a screen, wear anti blue light glasses or use an anti blue light screen filter. This shields you from eye damage and, so, limits one potential headache trigger. It may also lower your risk of migraines - yay!
Consider purchasing ergonomically designed equipment. Your chair, desk, keyboard, monitor, and foot stool all matter greatly to help your posture. Sit upright. Use a lumbar support. Keep your elbows, hips, knees and ankles at approximately 90 degrees. Ask someone to look at you from the side while you sit as per usual. Have them check that your ears rest over your shoulders. Why? When your head juts forward, it strains your neck and shoulder muscles and stresses your spine. This might well be causing your headaches.
Are some people extreme cases and need to go to the Dr?
Do your headaches interfere with your life? If this is the case, you should seek professional support. There are options. Expert assessment, treatment and advice can be a game changer…
Your chiropractor or osteopath will assess you and provide some advice. Your medical doctor will look for any underlying issues and may offer pharmaceutical pain relief.
Your Optometrist will determine whether an eye problem might be contributing to your headaches and provide advice on helpful steps.
There are also some red flags you should look out for. If you have any of these signs or symptoms, seek care promptly:
- Headache caused by coughing or moving
- Light sensitivity or vomiting (unless it is your “normal” migraine)
- Limb or facial weakness
- Neck stiffness
- Sudden onset of severe headache
- New onset, especially if you are over 50
For most people, headaches don’t indicate a dangerous cause. This doesn’t mean that can’t be incapacitating, annoying, tiresome or frustrating. You should not struggle through or accept this as a usual part of life. It is possible to stop or limit headaches related to your computer screen. The right approach, the right tools, and giving yourself permission to rest and recover can improve your quality of life and may even stop the pain. So make sure you look after yourself and take the steps needed to reduce these aches and pains!