Originally created 12/11/97

Computer eyestrain brings host of new products



You've bought your "natural" keyboard and foamy wrist rest. You've got a finger-friendly mouse and a fully adjustable office chair that provides maximum back support.

Yet just when you think you've got this ergonomics thing conquered, along comes another high-tech ailment: Computer Vision Syndrome, or CVS.

And with marketers' penchant for fast fix-its, you can add it to your shopping list.

Experts say more than 15 million Americans suffer from the syndrome, which is essentially eyestrain associated with prolonged computer use. Symptoms include dry eyes, blurry vision, heaviness of the eyelids and headaches. Though experts don't believe the syndrome causes permanent damage, it's not something to be ignored, they say. Even temporary impairments can be bothersome, leading to discomfort and lower productivity.

Bleary eyes related to computer use is nothing new. However, scientists only recently pinned a name on the phenomenon as the prevalence of computers in the home and workplace has spurred a growing number of cases - estimated at 1 million a year. The American Optometric Association (AOA) estimates 14 percent of patients schedule eye exams because of the syndrome.

As eye doctors and patients become more accepting of CVS, companies are rushing to cash in with a host of products aimed at relieving its symptoms. Offerings include special lenses that help bifocal wearers comfortably view the computer screen and filters aimed at reducing glare.

The latest competitor in the CVS market is Bausch & Lomb Inc., which last month introduced its Computer Eye Drops at Comdex, the huge computer show in Las Vegas.

The Rochester, N.Y., company - whose products include contact lens and Ray-Ban sunglasses - says its new drops are unique in the $325 million-a-year eye drop industry. While drops such as the market leader, Visine, are designed to reduce the vessels in your eyes to "get the red out," Bausch & Lomb's drops contain a special lubricant called glycerin that restores moisture to dry and strained eyes.

The over-the-counter drops sell for about $6 for a half-ounce bottle, Bausch & Lomb said.

"It is certainly clever marketing, I think, but they've also done some homework to develop a good product. . . . It is a different eye drop," said James Sheedy, clinical professor of optometry at the University of California at Berkeley, and an expert on CVS.

According to Sheedy, studies show that when people work on the computer their blink rate is reduced to about one-third its usual frequency. Computer users also tend to open their eyes wider, further adding to dryness.

Jeff McLean, director of marketing for Bausch & Lomb's general eye care business, said he thinks Computer Eye Drops will appeal to both heavy computer users such as programmers and more moderate users.

"It's really a growing trend," McLean said of CVS, pointing out 60 million Americans suffer from eye or vision problems stemming from computer work. Of those, only about 13 million now use eye drops, he said.

Sheedy and other experts stress CVS isn't thought to cause permanent damage or disabling effects. Symptoms will lessen if proper care is taken of the eye, including taking frequent breaks, dimming overhead lights, positioning the computer monitor 20 to 24 inches from your eyes at about 15 degrees below eye level.

Yet CVS can exacerbate other eye conditions such as astigmatism and dry eyes from contact lens use, experts said.

The main drawback to CVS is the loss of productivity that results from discomfort caused by eyestrain. Experts estimate CVS costs employers and workers nearly $2 billion a year in diagnosis and treatment.

"Not a bad idea," said Carol Scott, professor of marketing at UCLA's Anderson Graduate School of Management, said of Computer Eye Drops. "Eye drops are an esoteric category to most people . . . (But) everyone can relate to staring at the computer screen and having some eyestrain."