Eyes on overtime

Angela Hilliard, a forensics specialist with the Glendale Police Department, didn't know why her eyes were red and dry, or why she was feeling exhausted at the end of the day.

As a crime scene investigator on burglaries, robberies, suicides and the very occasional homicide, the four-year veteran of the department is out in the field collecting evidence, including latent fingerprints.

She returns to the department to read the fingerprints and view other evidence through a microscope or magnifier. Then, she writes her reports, keeping connected to a computer screen for up to five hours a day.

"The fatigue I had was not from the job; it was different," the 36-year-old said. "I had reading glasses, but I knew I needed something else."

She is just one of the 10 million Americans suffering from computer-related eye problems.

Optometrist Stacey T. Gin examined her eyes and fitted her with computer glasses, which assist the patient with focusing on monitors, which are usually placed 18 to 24 inches away from the user.

"My computer glasses have made all the difference in the world. They relax my eyes. I have no more headaches, and my eyes aren't dry and red," Hilliard said.

For decades office workers and professionals have been working on computers. But today we are a wired society, communicating via e-mail and text messages in our personal and professional lives. Our cell phones have gotten smaller and smarter, and then there's the iPad and e-reading devices such as Kindle.

As a result, optometrists nationwide see more than 10 million people a year for computer-related eye problems, according to VSP Vision Care, a not-for-profit eye care insurance company.

"We're spending more time in front of computers and other devices," said Gin, a VSP provider at the Glendale Optometric Center. "It's important to know that when you're working in front of a computer, you are blinking two-thirds less and producing fewer tears. You have to give your eyes a break."

The rule of thumb is 20-20-20.

"After 20 minutes on the computer or digital device, stare at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds," she said. "That relaxes the eyes and allows you to blink. When you stare, you dry out your eyes."

It's not only adults whose vision is being affected by technology. Children spend an estimated nine hours a day staring at a screen — texting, doing homework on the computer, playing video games, watching YouTube, reading Facebook, playing Wii and now, 3-D digital games, and 3-D television and films.

Makers of 3-D video games such as Nintendo and Sony have warned that looking at 3-D images for a long time can affect the growth of children's eyes and have urged that children under age 6 not play 3-D games

However, the American Optometric Assn. is not calling for an age limit. Instead, it has issued a statement that parents should urge moderation in the use of the new games. The association noted that viewing 3-D movies, TV and games "may help uncover subtle disorders that left uncorrected, often result in learning difficulties."

"This may be a blessing in disguise," Gin said. "Nearly 30% of the population cannot view 3-D due to an array of symptoms."

Those symptoms include feelings of dizziness, headache, eye strain, motion sickness and stomach ache while watching images in 3-D or prolonged use of digital devices.

"If you or your child experiences these symptoms, you should see an eye doctor," she said. "Problems seeing 3-D may indicate that something could be going wrong visually."

The symptoms may signal a previously undetected problem such as nearsightedness, farsightedness, amblyopia (lazy eye) or a slight strabismus (crossed-eyes), which can be corrected with proper glasses, she said.

"These eye problems can lead to problems in school. Children can be labeled as having a learning disability or ADHD, but the problem may really be that the child's eye's aren't focusing together," she said.

Gin and other VSP eye care providers will be helping the Glendale Healthy Kids Mobile Eye Clinic in April to try to catch these eye problems.

"I haven't seen a child with problems from viewing 3-D. It's too new. But the 3-D revolution is bringing more awareness of these potential problems," Gin said. "That's why it is important for school-age children to have regular, annual eye check-ups."

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