Published in InterAction 69, Summer 2009
On occasion we are contacted by people who find their symptoms worsen when watching TV or using computers or other types of screens. These reactions can be very distressing, as well as limiting.
We regret that our medical advisers cannot respond to individual enquiries
Dear Doctor: Sick of screens
I find using a computer more than a tiny amount triggers nausea, debility, anxiety and insomnia. Mine is a standard PC, not a laptop and has a flat screen. I am wondering if electrosensitivity is part of my M.E., or whether this is a light exposure issue? I’m fine with daylight/sunlight. The display screen on mobile phones and digital cameras also seem to upset me, as well as watching TV – though this to a much lesser degree. Are there any solutions to this? I’m not sure if avoidance is the only answer.
Professor Tony Pinching responded:
Thank you for your question. This is quite tricky to answer for you specifically, because the answer depends a bit on what other symptoms or features that you have with your illness. So, even more than usual, this reply is about the general issues raised.
You describe nausea, debility, anxiety and insomnia after using a computer for even a short time, mentioning that TV, mobile phones and digital cameras also do this, but not sunlight. I do think that the most likely explanation is that this is something to do with the light and that this is part of the light-sensitivity, which is often seen as part of sensory sensitivity generally. The effect of M.E./CFS on the brain may mean that it is not so good at filtering out unwanted sensory information. This leads to light, noise or other sensitivities, or ‘sensory overload.’
Different sorts of light are emitted by different light sources. While I am no expert on the types of light emission, I do know that many people with M.E./CFS describe problems with different light sources (but again, not daylight). It seems to be the quality of the light that makes a difference. Fluorescent strip lighting is the commonest source of problems. There are concerns that some people with M.E./CFS will be similarly sensitive to the low-energy light bulbs that are now being introduced for environmental reasons.
Many people without M.E./CFS who spend a lot of time using PCs find that the glare from the screen can become a problem. There are some screens that you can place over the PC monitor that can filter out some of the glare and they should be obtainable from computer suppliers. Polaroid sunglasses could be another simple option.
Another possible explanation could be that your symptoms are to do with the balance mechanism, which is strongly linked to the eyes. Some people find that very ‘busy’ computer/TV/mobile/camera screens can give a feeling similar to things whooshing past, causing something a bit like travel sickness. Treatments for vertigo/balance problems might help with this. The anxiety feeling could be a reaction to feeling off balance, which happens quite often in people with balance disorders.
A very remote possibility - if you have any tendency to classical allergies, house dust, house dust mite or other external substances - is that the computer screen attracts such particles and that they are then disturbed during use, triggering allergic reactions. This is complete speculation, doesn’t really fit with your symptoms (though it might fit those of other folk) and is probably wrong!
Although some patients have been concerned about sensitivity to electromagnetic fields, it has been very hard to find good evidence for this and there is often another simpler explanation, such as those above. But there may be more things that science needs to discover…
Thanks for a challenging question!
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