A local optometrist has noticed an alarming rise in dry eye disease in his younger patients.
Dr. Tom Wilk of Mountain View Optometry said he used to see signs of the disease in patients in their 40s and 50s, now it’s appearing in the eyes of teenagers.
“The only way that that can be explained is the increased use of computer screens,” Wilk said from his Cochrane office.
“The concern is because dry eyes is a disease, it’s progressive. It’s not going to stop without intervention. If somebody has early stage dry eye disease at age 18, and that disease progresses, what sort of problems are they going to encounter as an adult?”
Wilk recognizes that computer screens, or any screens, aren’t going away any time soon. Like most optometrists he recommends that patients see their eye care professional on a regular basis so early signs of the disease can be detected and treated.
“You can’t tell someone to not use a computer screen when 80 per cent of their life is based on that. I use a screen everyday.”
According the CNIB Foundation, around 30 per cent of Canadians experience ocular symptoms associated with dry eye disease. The disease occurs when the eye doesn’t make sufficient tears or when tears evaporate too quickly. Electronic screens are being identified as a culprit because users tend not to blink as often when staring at a screen.
Wilk explains that myobium gland dysfunction is one part of the disease and refers to the gland’s inability to produce a tear film that covers and hydrates the surface of the eye. The gland produces lipid, an oil, and the pressure of blinking releases the oil into the tear gland. He says more than 80 per cent of people with dry eye disease have myobium gland dysfunction.
“It weren’t for that thin coating of tears in front of our eyes, we wouldn't be able to see. Our tears wouldn’t adhere to our eye. They would just splash out.”
“The cornea surface on its own, dry, is a poor refractor of light. So a properly functioning tear film is incredibly important for vision. A lot of people don’t realize that.”
Some of Wilk’s patients have such severe dry eye disease that their vision is inconsistent and disrupted. They might blink and it’s filmy, blink again and their vision is momentarily clear and they blink again and their vision is somewhere in between.
“They can’t get a consistent clear image because that tear film is so disrupted.”
Wilk says over-tearing can also be attributed to the disease. Humans have two types of tears: basic and reflex tears. Basic tears are the regular coating on the eye and reflex tears occur when there’s an irritant in the air. If a patient has a dysfunctional basic tear the reflex tear system kicks in and overwaters.
“A lot of the times people have become adapted or adjusted to the physical discomfort resulting from basic tear deficiency, their main symptom is now watering because their eyes are constantly irritated to the point that their reflex tear system is constantly working,” Wilk said.
Wilk says there are nine recognized forms of the disease and a number of contributing factors. He says eye care professionals need to provide the right diagnosis and a treatment plan for the patient.
In the case of over-using screens, the CNIB Foundation recommends that patients raise their chair and lower their screen. This will lower your eye lids and decrease the dryness associated with open lids. The computer screen should also be 15 to 20 degrees down from your eyes. Also, give your eyes a rest and look away at something 20 feet away, for 20 seconds every 20 minutes. The foundation calls this the 20-20-20 rule.
The foundation and Wilk recommends Omega-3 Fatty Acids in either a supplement form or in the diet and preservative-free artificial tears or prescription eye drops. In some cases patients are candidates for punctal plugs that block the tear ducts. All of these treatment options should be prescribed by an eye care professional after a dry eye diagnosis.
“Less than 10 years ago we in the eye care industry figured that dry eye disease was simply a physical discomfort. That’s all it was. It causes some irritation, some scratchiness and itchiness, burning sensation now and then.”
“Now we know it’s much more than that. If you don’t treat it properly, the risk of it progressing and becoming much more difficult to treat is there.”