3-D movies such as 'Avatar,' 'Alice' make you ill? Headache, dizziness may be sign of vision problem

Thousands of Central Floridians are flocking to multiplexes to watch fire-breathing dragons, blue humanoids and mythological creatures pop off the screen.

But not everyone is enjoying the slew of recent 3-D releases, including Avatar, Alice in Wonderland, Clash of the Titans and How to Train Your Dragon. Some moviegoers suffer headaches, nausea and dizziness from the special 3-D effects. And they may not even know why.

"Most people can enjoy these films if they can see correctly with both eyes," said Orlando optometrist Nelsa Losada. "But even minor problems such as nearsightedness, farsightedness or amblyopia — often referred to as 'lazy eye' — can cause feelings of discomfort if not treated with glasses or contacts, or if someone is wearing an outdated prescription."

The problem is the result of "vision fatigue," caused when the technology used in 3-D forces the eyes to constantly adjust so they can focus on images both near and far away, said Jeffrey Anshel, a California optometrist with the national eye-care insurer Vision Service Plan, or VSP.

"We see things in three dimensions, but the exaggerated effects of 3-D movies can cause vision problems in some people," said Anshel, who has researched vision fatigue among computer users.

WESH-TV meteorologist Amy Sweezey said she has avoided watching any of the recent 3-D releases after experiencing nausea from visiting some of the local 3-D attractions such as "Shrek 4-D" at Universal Studios and "Honey, I Shrunk the Audience" at Epcot.

"I refused to see Avatar because I was afraid to be sick. I just took the kids to see How to Train Your Dragon in 2-D, much to my kids' disappointment," said Sweezey, 38. "I used to wear contacts, then got Lasik surgery, so I'm not sure it's problems with my vision. I continue to get my eyes checked regularly, so maybe next time I'll bring up this up next time I visit my eye doctor."

Films in 3-D rely on depth perception. People see through eyes that are about 2 to 3 inches apart. This separation makes each eye see from a slightly different angle. The brain fuses these two views together to calculate distance and sense of depth.

"The two lenses on an IMAX 3-D camera roughly match the distance between our eyes, and so each lens 'sees' and records a slightly different view," according to the Web site for IMAX, the entertainment-technology company that features many 3-D releases. "The end result is two separate reels of film for every IMAX 3-D movie (one reel with the left-eye view and another reel with the right-eye view). These two reels of film run simultaneously through the camera and your polarized IMAX 3-D glasses fuse the two images together, creating the 3-D effect on screen."

Losada said those with cataracts or other eye problems that keep them from seeing equally well with both eyes may be completely prevented from experiencing the effects of 3-D movies.

In addition to correcting vision with eyeglasses or contacts, Losada said vision therapy can help many people strengthen their eye muscles so they can see better.

"A lot of athletes undergo vision therapy, which uses a number of different exercises to make their vision stronger," she said.

Although over-the-counter drugs such as Dramamine can help, "most motion-sickness drugs only work if taken before the activity, so I would not recommend that people take these drugs before going to a 3-D movie to overcome any symptoms," Anshel said. "It's better to find the real source of the problem, which is most likely their visual system, rather than something to mask the symptoms with other potential side effects."

Anshel and Losada say experiencing dizziness, nausea or other problems with 3-D films is often a sign that you need to get your eyes checked.

"People can use that as a signal they may have a vision problem they might not even realize," Anshel said. "If you're feeling sick from watching a 3-D movie, maybe the eye doctor should be your next call."

Fernando Quintero can be reached at or 407-650-6333.