Musicians' Health Collective

Musicians' Health Collective: Supporting the health of musicians

Your Overtaxed Eyes and What to do About Them

Generally, we think of overuse as applying to large muscle groups and in relationship to pain sensations, i.e., I played too much this weekend and my forearms/shoulders/back hurt.  But what about our eyes?  Just as our larger muscle groups can be overtaxed, our eyes can as well, especially when we're constantly engaged in work close to our face.  Most of us are looking at sheet music, books, computers, and phones for many hours a day, which keeps the ciliary muscles contracted and our eyes engaging in things close up all of the time.

As a side point, I am a fortunate person in that I have perfect vision.  My dog, however, has cataracts and has dealt with glaucoma, so I've had a crash course in canine opthalmology courtesy of her treatment.

As a side point, I am a fortunate person in that I have perfect vision.  My dog, however, has cataracts and has dealt with glaucoma, so I've had a crash course in canine opthalmology courtesy of her treatment.

*Quick time out, the ciliary muscles are the middle layer of eye muscle and change the shape of the lens of the eye.  Here's a more science-rich quote from David Darling in response to the role of the ciliary muscles:

When the ciliary muscle is relaxed the ligaments are taut, and the lens is stretched thin enabling it to focus on distant objects. When the ciliary muscle is contracted the suspensory ligaments become less taut, and the lens becomes rounder so that it can focus on objects that are nearby.

The contraction and relaxation of the ciliary muscle is controlled by the autonomic nervous system. Sympathetic nerve fiber stimulation (see sympathetic nervous system) causes relaxation of the muscle, whereas parasympathetic stimulation (see parasympathetic nervous system) causes muscle contraction. The ciliary muscle is part of the ciliary body.
— David Darling

  When most of us use our eyes only in a close distance (2-20 feet), our eyes never have a chance to relax.  Add to that dubious lighting either for reading music (in a pit, in orchestra, etc.) and no wonder your eyes are tired!  Our eyes thrive on seeing both near and far, and in order to see objects far away, the ciliary muscle must relax fully.  So what can you can do to facilitate an eye reset?

1. Try to go outside and truly observe the landscape, both near and far, side to side, etc.  See how much you can allow your eyes to move without moving your head to facilitate peripheral viewing.  In addition, walking outside (as opposed to treadmill walking) changes the impact to the eyes (optic flow) because you are moving in relationship to objects, with objects starting far away and coming nearer.

2.  Notice if you're overusing your phone, i.e., doing emails and substantial work on your phone.  The small text, the bright light, and the proximity to your face isn't helping things, especially if you're on it more than necessary.

If you're always engaging with sheet music from one side of the stand (AKA. sitting inside or outside) your vision will also change. 

If you're always engaging with sheet music from one side of the stand (AKA. sitting inside or outside) your vision will also change. 

3.  If you're in an ensemble rehearsal, take a moment at breaks or before rehearsal to look into the depth of the hall or rehearsal space and then come back to the music.  If your eyes are feeling particularly overworked, spend more time looking into the seats or outside into the landscape. 

4.  If you're desk bound for most of your day, take a few moments to look out of a window every hour or so, not only to get in some natural light, but also to give your eye muscles a chance to change the loads and stresses placed upon them. 

Also take note- can you see better from one eye or from one side of the stand (if you're a string player) than the other?  Do you have one sided headaches, jaw pain, or neckaches after playing that correlate to vision distortion?  Poor alignment can certainly contribute to vision strain, so be mindful of your position seated and standing.  If you're a wind player or singer, also keep in mind that your eye pressure (aka. intra-ocular pressure) may spike in response to your instrument, so if you're receiving treatment for cataracts or glaucoma, do tell your opthalmologist about your occupation. 

To read more about overtaxed eyes, check out Katy Bowman's

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