As a millennial in 2021, I’ve spent a lot of my life looking at screens. Cartoons and Nintendo 64 have turned into Netflix and working full-time from home.
I enjoy this fast-paced, digital world as much as the next young person. But things took an unexpected turn this year when I was diagnosed with dry eyes.
According to Dr. Andrew Liang, one of our Optometrists at HealthOne, dry eye disease is mostly found in the population that’s still working. “It’s not age-dependent,” he explains. “It all depends on how much time you spend looking at screens. The longer you’re exposed to that environment, the more likely it’s going to become problematic.”
Finding out that I had dry eyes was, admittedly, quite surprising. I didn’t wear glasses. I thought I had perfect vision. And I knew I looked at screens a lot, but didn’t think it was enough to cause damage.
All it took was a regular check-up to learn the unexpected truth about my eye health.
This is part one of a three-part blog series detailing my experience with dry eye disease. I’ll be talking about my diagnosis, treatment, and what you can do to avoid winding up in the same situation as me!
Dry eyes aren’t fun, but the good news is they can be managed – and even better, prevented altogether. Education is the first step, so let’s start at the beginning!
What causes dry eyes?
We’ve all shed a tear or two while watching a Nicholas Sparks movie. But did you know that you also create tears every time you blink?
These tears are necessary for keeping your eyes healthy and lubricated. They’re comprised of three layers:
- The innermost layer: the mucin layer,
- The mid-layer: the water (aqueous) layer
- The outermost layer: the oily (lipid) layer
Dry eye symptoms develop when one (or all) of these layers is missing or deficient. There are a few different things that can cause this, which we outlined in detail in this blog post. For the purpose of this series, we’ll be focusing on the most common scenario: a missing oil layer caused by a lack of blinking.
Every time you blink, your Meibomian glands (located in your upper and lower eyelid) express oil. But when you’re looking at a screen – be it a phone, computer, or television – you naturally don’t blink your eyes as much because you’re concentrating. The lack of an oily layer causes the tears to evaporate quickly, resulting in uncomfortable dry eye symptoms.
Dry eye symptoms
Common examples of dry eye symptoms can include:
- Red, watery eyes
- Stinging, burning, or itchy eyes
- Light sensitivity or difficulty driving
- Blurry vision or tired eyes
- Sometimes, it can be asymptomatic
It was normal for me to finish a workday with blurry vision, tired eyes, and a headache. I thought that was just the price I had to pay for spending so much time on my laptop.
But after visiting Dr. Amy Law, I realized these were not normal symptoms. I’d gotten used to the discomfort, but in reality, my vision was suffering.
As young people, we’re so quick to brush off warning signs from our bodies. The truth is that we should be acknowledging them more often. A professional opinion can make all the difference, especially with something as valuable as our vision!
Dry eye disease
So, we know that a lack of blinking can cause uncomfortable dry eye symptoms. But is it really that big of a deal? Can’t we use some eye drops and call it a day?
Not exactly. There’s a lot more that happens beneath the surface. Andrew explains:
“When you don’t blink, the oils are formed inside your glands but they’re not being secreted. And oil that becomes stagnant for too long starts to solidify, which can form a blockage near the opening that prevents other oils from coming out.
Sometimes during an eye exam, I’ll push along the patients’ lower lid and I’m expecting a watery oil to come out. But in cases that are really bad, it comes out the texture of toothpaste. That tells me I need to take a closer look at these glands to see what’s going on.”
This accumulation of solidified oil can also deteriorate your Meibomian glands. In severe cases, it can lead to irreversible damage. Once your Meibomian glands die off, they don’t grow back (and then you might actually need to use eye drops for the rest of your life). This is why it’s always best to catch your dry eye symptoms early.
After checking out my eyes, Dr. Amy Law confirmed that I had severe Meibomian gland dysfunction. It was mainly due to screen time. I was also on a medication that, in some cases, could cause dry eye symptoms.
I was definitely surprised to hear this, but seeing the side-by-side really helped me see the whole picture. The diagram below shows the different structural changes that can happen to your Meibomian glands over time. Next to it is the scan Dr. Amy Law did of my Meibomian glands.
Once I had gotten my diagnosis, I was ready to learn about the next steps.
How do you fix dry eyes?
The path to treating dry eyes will be unique for each person. An Optometrist like Dr. Amy Law will consider your age, your lifestyle, and how severe your Meibomian dysfunction has gotten (if your symptoms are due to screentime). Remember, not every case of dry eyes is due to a lack of blinking. Learn more about five causes of dry eye disease here.
Regardless of why you have dry eyes, the good news is that there are many different treatment options available. You’ll be in especially good hands if you visit a dry eye specialty clinic, like our Optometry clinic at HealthOne. Here’s an overview of the different treatment options we offer.
Dry eye treatment
- Lipiflow Treatment. This is a specialized procedure only available at dry eye specialty clinics. It’s a painless, 12-minute treatment that uses heat and gentle pulsations to breaks up the blockages in your Meibomian glands. Lipiflow is what Dr. Amy Law recommended for my case, but it isn’t always necessary.
- A Bruder mask. This is a mask that you heat up in the microwave and place over your eyes. It warms up the oils which encourages them to flow more easily. The Bruder mask we prescribe at HealthOne is by I-MED Pharma, one of the leading retailers in dry eye specialty products.
- Eye drops. I-MED also creates eye drops as a treatment option. Think of them as a manual way to add more oils to your eyes. There are different strengths and consistencies available; your optometrist will determine which one(s) are right for you.
- Omega-3 supplements. Better eye health begins with Omega-3 fatty acids. Optometrists often prescribe these for dry eyes to control inflammation and encourage better production of oil in the tears.
- Blinking exercises. Yup, being diagnosed with dry eyes usually means getting some homework! I was surprised to find out that there’s a right and a wrong way to blink. If you’re diagnosed with dry eyes, your Optometrist will likely teach you some blinking exercises and share tips and tricks for working better on a screen.
How to cure dry eyes permanently
Dry eyes aren’t something that can permanently be “cured”. It’s about treating and managing symptoms, or better yet – preventing them.
For example, someone with mild symptoms might only need eye drops and blinking exercises.
On the other hand, someone with severe dry eyes might be prescribed Lipiflow and multiple different products to use in the short term. Similar recommendations like blinking exercises and frequent breaks from screentime would also be beneficial in the long term.
Prevention is key, and regular check-ins with your Optometrist are the best way to stay on top of your eye health. As the old adage goes, “it’s better to be safe than sorry!”.
Dry eye treatment Toronto
At HealthOne, our optometrists are seeing more patients each day who have dry eye symptoms as a result of their screen usage. That’s why we're proud to offer dry eye assessments at our clinic!
We want you to take charge of your eye health now so you don’t have to deal with problems later on in life. I’m thankful I visited Dr. Amy Law when I did so my symptoms didn’t get worse and my treatment didn’t end up more costly.
In the next blog of this series, I’ll be sharing all the details about my Lipiflow treatment: how it felt, if it hurt and if my eyes actually felt better after my procedure.
Until then, get ahead of your health and book your next eye appointment with one of our team members! Screens aren’t going anywhere, but your eyesight very well could be.
One Life. Live Inspired.