We most commonly have tired eyes at bedtime, right before falling asleep. The eyelids feel heavy and they begin to droop. Your field of vision narrows as you squint and blink at the TV screen, trying to stay awake. Then your eyelids become even heavier and close when the need for sleep takes over.
It is also common to have tired eyes at the end of a long day, after many hours of concentration during which you must keep your eyes open. Staring at a computer, reading, scanning, watching — whatever your eyes do is a workout for the eye and eyelid muscles. Most of the time, tired eyes are simply a sign of muscle fatigue. This is why rubbing tired eyes temporarily revives them. The rubbing increases the blood flow in the area, and like a massage of the calf muscles after exercise, it helps loosen the muscles, making the eyelids feel less heavy. Tired eyes from muscle fatigue may also appear red and puffy.
In some instances, the eyes may look tired but you may not be tired. In people born with thicker eyelids, the eyes appear to droop. As people age, fat can accumulate around the eyes, and the extra tissue can make the eyes look tired. This is often described as bags under the eyes. For those with excess tissue around the eyes, eyelid surgery (blepharoplasty) can improve both cosmetic appearance and vision.
Resting tired eyes is usually all that is needed to return them to normal, and not resting tired eyes can lead to eye strain. Although it is usually harmless, eye strain can lead to other problems, such as headache, dry eyes, irritability, and eye pain.
Common Causes of Tired Eyes
It is usually easy to pinpoint the cause of your tired eyes. Here are a few common reasons for swollen, droopy eyes and heavy eyelids:
- Too little or too much sleep
- Prolonged staring at digital devices (computer screens, smartphones, video games); this is known as Computer Vision Syndrome
- Overworking the eyes by performing an activity that requires intense use of the eyes, such driving or reading, for an extended period without taking a break
- Incorrect vision prescription
- Dry eye syndrome (a chronic lack of moisture in the eye that can occur when the tear glands don’t produce the correct quantity or quality of tears)
- Farsightedness (difficulty seeing objects that are nearby)
- Astigmatism (a condition in which the cornea is abnormally curved, causing vision to be out of focus)
- Exposure to bright light or straining to see in dim light
- Presbyopia (the slow loss of ability to see close objects or small print) is normal as you get older; people with presbyopia often have headaches or strained, tired eyes, and may require reading glasses
All these conditions force the eye muscles to work harder than usual. Ophthalmologists speculate that much eye fatigue is really caused by dryness. People normally blink about 12 to 15 times per minute. This naturally refreshes the eyes. When you are tired, the blink rate slows down and the eyes are not properly lubricated, causing irritation. Studies suggest that computer users blink much less frequently, about four or five blinks per minute. The less you blink, the more productive you may be, but this can take a toll on your eyes. The symptoms that accompany eye strain from computer use have been summed up as Computer Vision Syndrome:
“Computer Vision Syndrome is by far the most prevalent [workplace ergonomic issue], affecting an estimated 150 to 200 million Americans, or 90 percent of computer users who work more than three hours a day on the computer.” (Huffington Post, 2012)
Symptoms Associated With Tired Eyes
Whatever the cause, the signs of eye fatigue are unmistakable. Other symptoms that may be associated with tired eyes include:
- Redness or irritation
- Difficulty focusing
- Dry or watery eyes
- Blurred or double vision
- Increased sensitivity to light
- Pain in the neck, shoulders, or back
Sleep deprivation can intensify these symptoms and reduce your productivity. Getting enough sleep is essential for eye health. Sleep allows your eyes to fully rest, repair, and recover. Insufficient sleep may result in persistent eye irritation and weaken your vision.
How to Prevent Tired Eyes
Simple changes in your work habits or environment can usually prevent or reduce eye fatigue:
- Get enough sleep.
- Try to reduce the environmental triggers of your eye allergies; ask your doctor about eye allergy treatments.
- Take frequent breaks from work: step away from your computer or work space at least once an hour.
- For computer users: try placing the screen 20 – 26 inches away from your eyes and a little below eye level. Regularly clean dust and fingerprints from the screen, and consider using a glare filter over your screen.
- Adjust the lighting in your office or room to find a level that is comfortable for you.
- If you are engaged in close-up work, periodically focusing on a distant object can help your eyes relax.
- Allow your eyes to rest after work.
- Visit your eye doctor regularly to make sure your vision prescription is correct and your eyes are healthy.
How to Reduce Puffiness of Tired Eyes
The puffiness associated with tired eyes can last a few minutes to a few hours. People who think swollen, tired eyes are cosmetically unappealing can look in their refrigerator for a few inexpensive home remedies. While an ice pack can decrease eye swelling, it can be too bulky or hard to place on the delicate eye. The following options offer more comfortable alternatives to help reduce the puffiness of tired eyes:
- Cucumbers: Contrary to popular belief, cucumbers do not have anti-inflammatory properties, but their round shape and composition (mostly water) make chilled cucumber slices excellent mini ice packs for puffy eyes.
- Bag of frozen vegetables: Frozen baby peas are recommended because they have a way of filling out the space around the eyes. Always place a soft cloth between the bag and your skin. The eye swelling should decrease after five to fifteen minutes of application.
- Whole Milk: The fat in whole milk is one of its soothing components. Protein, amino acids, lactic acid, and vitamins A and D are other ingredients that can reduce eye irritation and puffiness. Iced milk works best. Simply apply a clean washcloth saturated in ice cold milk to the eyes for about fifteen minutes.
- B. Briggs, “Why Do Our Eyelids Get Heavy When We’re Sleepy?,” NBC News Health, March 12, 2012, http://www.nbcnews.com/health/why-do-our-eyelids-get-heavy-when-were-sleepy-404122
- M. Nearl, “5 Reasons Your Eyes Are So Tired,” Reader’s Digest, http://www.rd.com/health/wellness/5-reasons-your-eyes-are-so-tired/
- R. Joyce, OD, “Overworked Eyes: Will Your Computer Make You Go Blind?,” Huffington Post, July 5, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-joyce-od/eye-strain_b_1591414.html
- National Institute on Aging, “Aging and Your Eyes,” June 26, 2013, http://www.nia.nih.gov/health/publication/aging-and-your-eyes
- “3 Cool Ways to Revive Tired Eyes,” Sharecare, June 2007, http://www.sharecare.com/health/eye-vision-health/article/3-cool-ways-to-revive-tired-eyes