With the pandemic still going strong in its ninth month, screen time for both adults and children has risen significantly. So have visits to optometrists and physical therapists.

For many Missouri residents, working from home was not an option. They’re still on the job, in person, forced to take calculated risks of COVID-19 infection.

But as facilities and offices have closed or limited capacity to reduce the spread of COVID-19, lots of people have improvised new work environments at home, not all of them “ergonomically correct.”

A study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that 35.2% of people who reported commuting to work have switched to working from home since April 1. The same study also found that 10.1% reported being laid-off or furloughed since the start of the pandemic.

While working from home has its upsides, staring at a screen for hours in a weird position isn’t one of them.

Alan Wegener, optometrist and president of the Missouri Optometric Association, said increased screen time is sending growing numbers of patients to their eye doctors. That’s been happening for the past 10 to 15 years, but the pandemic isn’t helping.

“Our eyes are optimized for viewing things at a long distance,” Wegener said. “When we look at the horizon, our eyes are totally relaxed, they are just looking straight ahead, we don’t have to actively focus on the target.”

When viewing things up close, our eyes tend to be more sensitive.

“As objects get closer to us, our eyes have to start turning in to keep the target single and not double up on us, and then as the target gets closer, we have to engage the focusing muscles of the eye in order to keep the target in focus,” Wegener said. “The closer something gets to us, the more muscles we have to engage in order to keep that target clear.”

A recent study by Ipsos, a research marketing group, found that of those who reported spending more time in front of a screen, nearly half have experienced their eyes feeling dry and 60% were concerned about the impact increased screen time was having on their eyes.

Computer vision syndrome, also known as digital eye strain, has increased with prolonged screen use according to the American Optometric Association. The high visual demands of viewing computer or phone screens can make people more susceptible to developing vision-related symptoms like headaches, blurred vision and dry eyes. Prolonged vision problems can affect the severity of symptoms from digital eye strain.

Wegener says adults’ symptoms are likely to show quickly because their eyes are mostly developed. What really worries optometrists is the impact on children’s vision.

“As handheld digital device used in the United States has skyrocketed, the rate of childhood nearsightedness has climbed as well,” Wegener said. “Once you become nearsighted, there’s no going back. And in most cases, you will just continue to get worse.”

The number of children wearing glasses has risen dramatically because of technological innovations. Meanwhile, nearly 93% of households with school-aged children reported using some form of distance learning in an ongoing survey that began April 23 — the majority depending on online resources, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Implementing these learning methods forces students into a digital culture where they can’t avoid increased screen time. Kids on average already spend six hours a day viewing screens. Even after having classes online, they still want to watch videos or play games on handheld devices.

‘The straw that broke the camel’s back’

The work-from-home life has also increased the number of people suffering with lower back pain, neck and shoulder soreness and migraines.

Rachael Wittenberger, physical therapist and owner of Mindful Movement in Columbia, said she’s seen more patients needing adjustments.

“I have had to do so much more hands-on manual therapy this year since March,” Wittenberger said. “I’ve treated more patients with bulging discs in the neck, I’ve treated more shoulder patients, just from bad ergonomics with their home workstations, homework stations and just working on a computer. It’s so evident.”

In addition to poor posture while working from home, Wittenberger said there are many factors including movement habits that contribute to discomfort. Increased screen time is “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

The body is so resilient and amazing that it will compensate for a while. “But eventually, when it’s moving away, or holding itself in a way it’s not intended to, that tissue will just say, ‘you know what, I wasn’t intended to move this way, and I’m gonna start telling you about it,’ and you start feeling pain,” Wittenberger said.

For anyone who isn’t used to being in front of a computer for hours without end, the body has to adjust to feel relaxed enough to remain in the same position for a long time. Shoulders rise towards ears, necks extend toward the screen, hip flexors become tighter and backs hunch toward the keyboard. All these subtle changes can affect the entire body before people are even aware of what’s happening.

“In time, it affects the whole biomechanical chain,” Wittenberger said. “Nothing works independent of everything else.”

Where you are feeling discomfort is almost always not the source of the problem, according to Wittenberger. Patients need to have a little broader perspective and can’t be afraid to ask practitioners questions, especially if they’ve recently switched to a new working environment. Physical discomfort could be a bigger issue than just where in the body you feel it, so it’s important to get to the source of the problem by listening to what your body tells you.

Some adjustments can help, including stretching, taking mental and physical breaks, and keeping a good upright posture. Using a standing desk, stability ball, and ensuring your workstation is ergonomically correct can help keep you balanced and lessen the stress and strain on your joints.

Wittenberger suggested starting the day with a mindfulness practice like a meditation, “whatever that is for each individual person — to be quiet and to just tune into your breath and to your body.”

  • Public safety and health reporter, fall 2020 Studying photojournalism Reach me at hestvp@umsystem.edu, or in the newsroom at 882-5700