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Computer Screen Headache: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment

Sep 01, 2023

Too much time in front of a monitor can be a trigger

Huma Sheikh, MD, is a board-certified neurologist, specializing in migraine and stroke, and affiliated with Mount Sinai of New York.

Whether you're prone to headaches or not, spending a lot of time in front of your computer—or any screen, for that matter—can trigger a computer screen headache. This can be due to the eye fatigue that comes with focusing on something at such a short distance, excess illumination, and even poor posture.

A computer screen headache can be dull or sharp. It is just one of the symptoms of computer vision syndrome, also known as digital eye strain. Other symptoms include blurry vision and dry eye.

While reducing your screen time is the best way to combat a computer screen headache, that may not always be possible. There are, however, things you can do to reduce your risk of one.

Learn more about how computer, tablet, and other screens can trigger a headache and what to do about it.

While you might think the act of focusing on a screen is a straightforward process, it's not as simple as it sounds. The distance between the front of a monitor and our eyes is called the working distance. Interestingly, our eyes actually want to relax at a point that's farther away from the screen. We call that location the resting point of accommodation (RPA).

In order to see what's on the computer screen, the brain has to direct our eye muscles to constantly readjust focus between the RPA and the front of the screen. This "struggle" between where our eyes want to focus and where they should be focused can lead to eyestrain and eye fatigue, both of which can trigger a headache.

Most cases of computer-related eyestrain do not require medical intervention but can instead be alleviated by adopting new prevention practices.

To reduce computer screen-related eyestrain, follow the "20-20-20 rule" endorsed by the American Optometric Society. Every 20 minutes, simply stop and take a 20-second break to view something 20 feet away.

Moreover, it's a good idea to rest your eyes completely for 15 minutes after two hours of continuous computer use.

If you're referring to a text on paper while working at the computer, don't put the paper down next to your keyboard. Prop the page up next to your screen so that there is less distance for your eyes to travel between the paper and monitor, less refocusing, and fewer chances for eyestrain.

Obtain regular eye care. While you may not need eyeglasses for everyday activities, you can benefit from wearing prescription glasses when using your computer.

Computer-related headaches can also be triggered by working in a bright environment. The lighting in many office spaces includes sun-filled windows, overhead fluorescent lights, and desk lamps.

In addition, you may not only be dealing with the glare from your computer but also the glare from every other computer in the room. This kind of excessive brightness or over-illumination can trigger several types of headaches, including migraines.

You may find that reducing the illumination can make a big difference in the frequency of your headaches:

If your workplace doesn't provide adjustable lighting, particularly for overhead fluorescents, adjust the brightness and contrast settings on your computer monitor.

If you find yourself hunched over or leaning into your computer screen when a headache occurs, the problem might be your posture. Poor cervical neck curvature is a common observation in computer-users who complain of headaches.

The type of headache is known as a cervicogenic headache. It could be located at the base of the skull and come up one side of the head.

There are things you can do to improve your posture, both in terms of the position of your furniture and the way you consciously correct bad habits.

To improve your posture, position your keyboard and computer so that your head is not tilted and your spine is neutral. The center of the screen should be about four to five inches below eye level and 20 to 28 inches from the eye.

A few more tips:

Many people will claim that radiation or cathode rays are the cause of computer screen-related headaches, but neither actually applies.

Radiation levels from computers are no more or less different than those from your flat-screen TV and cathode rays essentially went out with vacuum tube TVs of yore.

Still, there are things to consider.

Research is emerging that exposure to low radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (RF-EMF) through the use of cell phones and Wi-Fi may be linked to more frequent and more severe migraine headaches.

Overall, the precise link between EMF and migraines is unclear. Still, restricting unnecessary exposure to RF-EMF sources is a reasonable goal, especially if you link the exposure to more severe headaches.

Interestingly, there is no strong evidence that the actual images on a computer screen trigger headaches.

While some patterns on a screen (such as bright lights on a dark background, flashing shapes, or specific line patterns) may trigger headaches in a small percentage of people with neurological deficits, the typical patterns we look at on the computer screen are not usually responsible.

If you suspect that screen patterns are triggering your headaches, speak with your healthcare provider as this may be a sign of photosensitive epilepsy.

Before you blame your headaches entirely on working at the computer, keep in mind that other things in your environment that coincide with computer use may actually be triggering your headaches. Ask yourself:

While your computer may be a trigger for your headaches, it's important to consult with your healthcare provider regarding your headache diagnosis. This way you can be sure you are getting the proper care.

It can vary. It might feel like a sharp pain or a dull ache. If a migraine is triggered, you may feel severe throbbing pain on one or both sides of the head. Poor posture when using a screen may cause a headache that starts at the base of the skull and goes up one side of the head.

It can vary between a few hours to several days. Call your healthcare provider if you have a headache that isn't responding to over-the-counter pain medications or is interfering with daily activities.

Research shows little evidence that blue light glasses can reduce eye strain and screen headaches. While a 2021 study found blue-blocking lenses had no benefit for eye strain, there were no adverse effects reported from wearing them.

Get our printable guide for your next healthcare provider's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

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American Optometric Society. Computer vision syndrome. 2019.

Weber K. Is too much screen time the cause of your headache? Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

Mohammadianinejad SE, Babaei M, Nazari P. The effects of exposure to low frequency electromagnetic fields in the treatment of migraine headache: a cohort study. Electron Physician. 2016;8(12):3445-3449. doi:10.19082/3445

Hoffmann J, Recober A. Migraine and triggers: post hoc ergo propter hoc?. Curr Pain Headache Rep. 2013;17(10):370. doi:10.1007/s11916-013-0370-7

Singh S, Downie L, Anderson A. Do blue-blocking lenses reduce eye strain from extended screen time? A Double-Masked Randomized Controlled Trial. Am J Ophthalmol. 2021;226:243-251. doi:10.1016/j.ajo.2021.02.010

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By Colleen Doherty, MD Colleen Doherty, MD, is a board-certified internist living with multiple sclerosis.