Could your neck and back pain be related to eye strain? If you work on a computer, live in a big city, use a smart phone a couple hours a day, or don’t get outside enough the answer is yes!
The eye is surrounded by 6 muscles that move the eye up/down, side to side, and in rotation. These muscles have a direct connection to the suboccipitals (6 very small but very important muscles). The suboccipitals are an interesting and important muscle group. They have one of the highest muscle spindles per gram (36 compared to glute max at .8) and play an important role in balance and head position. These muscles also link into the erectors that run down your spine and from there into the hamstrings. They are also the very top of the superficial back line in Anatomy Trains language.
Our eyes evolved to hunt, scan horizons, forage, perform fine motor skills, and to see patterns in nature and humans. Ancient peoples used their eyes far differently than we do today. In modern times we have really narrowed our scope of view and a lot of what we look at is on a screen. It’s right in front of us and often moving very fast as we scroll through Instagram or an playing an action-packed video game. No longer do we spend nights allowing our eyes to expand and soften as we gaze at stars and watch fire dance. No longer do our eyes scan the ground for an important medicinal plant and many of us practice little to no fine motor skills like knitting or carving.
Here’s my theory: Screens and lack of being outside in nature contribute to eye strain because modern lifestyle interferes with the coordinated movements of the eyes, head, neck, back and the rest of the body. When you sit and work on a computer for hours a day, your eyes move quite rapidly while the rest of your body is largely at rest. Our bodies are not made to work like this!
Ideally when you look up at a bird (for instance) your eyes move, followed by your upper cervicals, rest of neck and spine and into hips, legs at feet. Looking around should be a full body movement.
For a large part of the day many peoples’ eyes dart around a 13’ screen. Their posture is often terrible and made worse by over supportive office chairs. Their backs are often rounded and neck hyperextended to see the screen. This causes those 6 little eyes muscles to do a lot of work! They can get very tired and tense without you even realizing it!
Think for a moment about your posture at your most used workstation. Which direction does your chest face? Your head? Is the screen in good place? Do you have a good chair (one that allows you to use core support)?
The way that you sit and orient your eyes creates a pattern for strain! This gives the body fewer options for movement and the system becomes fixed and rigid, leading to pain and dysfunction down the chain.
Here's a quick eye massage for tired eyes: Start with index finger at base of bony ridge of the nose and work lateral to the edges of eye in gentle circles. Switch to thumbs and go along the upper ridge lifting the brow up. Cover each eye for 30 seconds with a cupped palm, making sure to just cover and not press down.
Eye exercises help with tracking, soften the muscles behind the eyes, and start to break up your patterns. They can help greatly to reduce eye strain as well as getting outside and allowing the eyes to stretch.
Try this simple exercise to reduce eye strain:
Lie on your back and close your eyes. Notice how your body sinks into the ground, feeling your heels, back of leg, sacrum, spine and, most importantly, your head and eyes. Can you notice how far out of the sockets the eyeballs feel? Are they soft? How dark is it? What colors do you see?
Open your eyes. Bend your knees and place the feet firmly on the floor. Gently roll your head left and right, stopping when you feel any resistance. It’s usually only a very small movement that is free here (upper cervicals). I’d say it’s like moving your nose one inch each way.
Close your eyes. Very slowly and gently start to take your eyes to the right from center. Start with very small movements like trying to see halfway to your ear and then increase distance slowly. Then try the same thing on the left side. Is one side more smooth? Do you feel your eyes jump on the way over or back? Does one eye track differently? If you feel a jump then slow down the movement and/or make it smaller. Try to make the eyes turn smoothly.
Open your eyes and find a point on the ceiling to focus on. Don’t stare, just soft focus. Now imagine there is a slow moving object going from the center to the right very slowly (like a spider crawling). Track this and then come back to the spot on the ceiling. Notice if your eyes jump. Go slowly and don’t hold your breath. Do the left side as well and then both going left and right. Go slow, notice places that your eyes skip over and try and slow down or decrease range until smoothed out.
Close eyes, go left and right again. Roll the head again. Notice any differences?
Open the eyes again and find that point on ceiling. Now keep your eyes softly focused on that spot and you rill your head left and right. This way the eyes and head are going opposite each other! You wont be able to roll the head very far and do this properly. Make sure you keep breathing.
Rest a moment
With eyes closed, take the eyes up and back to center. Move slowly and try and feel each eye. Then move the eyes down and back to center. Which is easier for you? Now tilt your head back a very small amount (upper cervicals) and then down a small amount (its’ really only a very small movement that is usually free here). I’d say it’s like moving nose up and down a half inch.
Rest a moment.
Now try and coordinate going up with head and eyes at same time. Without trying to change, notice what goes up first, eyes or head? Once you have realized the pattern, flip it. (If your eyes move a bit before your head, then you would take your head up first and follow with eyes.) Do the same thing going down.
If you want a real challenge try taking the head up but the eyes down. Do you take the head up first and the eyes down second? Switch the order and see how it is. Try this with the head going down and eyes up. Go slowly and be gentle. This is a powerful neurological exercise!
These types of exercises help to break up habitual patterns of strain in the eyes, head, neck and down the chain. You may notice that going one direction is much harder than the other. This is due to patterns that you hold. For instance, right now I can feel that I have a left bend in the neck with a right tilt of upper cervicals and a slight right rotation. I’m not sure what my eyes are doing but I bet that left one is a little lazy.
The great thing about awareness exercise like this is you will start to realize how you hold yourself in patterns. Once you identify these patterns you can slowly start to come out of them. By this I mean you might do something to change your daily life such as changing the angle of your screen, you might notice your always working with your head rotated and stop doing that or purposefully start craning your neck the other direction. You might start using your less dominate eye more.
In my clinical experience pain and postural patterns go together. The ways you move (or don’t) effect your whole system for the better or worse. The brain loves options and having them helps keep our brain and bodies young, supple, and resilient.