Is It Possible to Temporarily Go Blind from Extreme Screen Use?
A woman in China reportedly went temporarily blind in her left eye after using her smartphone all night.
Earlier this week, an unnamed woman in China reportedly woke up to find that she could not see from her left eye, according to Asia-Pacific news wire service AsiaWire, per Fox News. She'd apparently stayed up through the night, spending hours on her phone. This excessive exposure to her phone screen is said to be the reason behind her impaired vision.
When she went to the doctor, the woman's physician, Qiu Wangjian, M.D., of Songgang People's Hospital, told AsiaWire that her scans showed a popped blood vessel in her left eye, according to Fox News. This apparently caused blood to flow over and around her retina, blocking her vision.
For treatment, doctors used a laser to create a small hole in the woman's retina that allowed the blood to drain, Fox News reports. Shortly after, her vision was restored.
The unnamed woman was diagnosed with something called Valsalva retinopathy, a specific form of retinopathy (damage to the retina) that can cause vision impairment, Matthew Ohr, M.D., an ophthalmologist at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Shape.
In almost all cases, Valsalva retinopathy is a direct result of increased pressure in the thorax—the part of your body between the neck and the abdomen, explains Dr. Ohr. "Activities such as coughing, lifting, strenuous activity, sexual intercourse, straining for a bowel movement, vomiting, labor, and compression injuries may result in Valsalva retinopathy," he says.
So how did a woman manage to pop a blood vessel in her eye by simply staring at a phone screen, even if she did so for hours on end? Well, it seems likely that the phone had nothing to do with it at all, says Dr. Ohr. "There are no reports of this happening from phone use," says Dr. Ohr. "It would likely be explained by another [cause]." (Did you know that multitasking with technology can rewire your brain?)
Catherine Gallagher, O.D., a board-certified optometrist at Brunswick Eye Care Associates in Maine, agrees. "Yes, using electronic devices such as smartphones for extended periods of time can cause strain to the eyes, but that's not at all the same type of full-body exertional strain we [seem to be] talking about here," she tells Shape. "Unless this woman was up all night vomiting or in labor while also on her smartphone, this diagnosis just doesn't seem to fit."
For light alone to cause such significant damage to someone's vision, the exposure would have to be extreme, adds Dr. Ohr. "While we know that things like ultraviolet light can damage the retina, there have also been studies suggesting that wavelengths in the blue part of the spectrum can induce damage," he explains. "However, most of these studies involve high-intensity light. The ocular health effects of increased exposure to low-intensity blue light sources such as LEDs, and in this case smartphones, is unclear."
It's also important to note that we aren't aware of any pre-existing health conditions this woman might have, says Dr. Gallagher. "There are numerous health conditions other than trauma or Valsalva retinopathy that can lead to retinal hemorrhages when not properly controlled," she explains. "Diabetes, hypertension, elevated cholesterol, carotid disease, and sickle cell anemia are just a few."
That's why it's important to have your eyes examined by an optometrist on an annual basis, rather than wait until something is affecting your vision, adds Dr. Gallagher. "There is a lot more that goes into a comprehensive eye exam than just whether or not you need a pair of glasses," she explains. "Retinal disease can occur without affecting your vision until it's too late to fix. It's fortunate that they were able to treat this patient quickly, but that isn't always the case. If there is one important takeaway message from this story, it isn't that using your phone too much can make your retina bleed, it's that retinal disease can remain undetected until it's too late."
That isn't to say that excessive screen time doesn't have its downsides to your eye health. In fact, computer vision syndrome (aka digital eye strain) is a very real problem. Thirty-one percent of Americans and 68 percent of millennials claim they've experienced dry eyes, headaches, and/or vision problems because of excessive screen usage, according to a report by The Vision Council. (Related: Google's New "Digital Wellbeing" Feature Will Help You Cut Back Your Screen Time)
The good news: This type of exposure doesn't cause permanent damage, says Dr. Ohr. "Although it can be annoying, it is typically not serious and resolves after resting the eyes," he explains.
The overall consensus is that you don't have to worry about popping a blood vessel in your eye (or going temporarily blind as a result) if you've been staring at a screen for too long. That said, there is a need for more research about long-term exposure to blue light to develop accurate safety measures and precautions, says Dr. Ohr.
For now, both The Vision Council and the American Optometric Association recommend following the 20/20/20 rule: Every 20 minutes, take a break from looking at a screen for 20 seconds by looking at something 20 feet away. If that sounds like a lot of work, these eye exercises to improve your eye health should do the trick.