Why Does Reading Give a Headache? [Here’s the Truth!]

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Many people complain that they develop a headache when reading. Often, people don’t even realize that the headache caused is due to reading! But, the real question is what triggers the headaches when reading.

The most common cause of headache while reading is the strain on the eye muscles as the eyes constantly move and re-align when reading. The pain may become frequent if the eye muscles have become weak or due to pre-existing stress.

I reached out to the experts to understand the exact reasons why you get a headache while reading. So, in this article, we’ll dig deeper into this topic and I’ll share with you the findings. Plus, I’ll also share best practices on how to prevent the heading in the first place!

So, let’s get started.

Disclaimer: This articles contains inputs from experts. However, I am not a doctor and any advice given in this article should not be constured as medical advice. For best results, visit your doctor!

Causes of Headache While Reading

As I have already shared with you, the most common cause of a headache while reading is not the reading itself, but the strain on the eye that acts as a trigger!

Eye strain is the condition when your eyes feel tired or irritated while or after reading a book or reading on a screen. Essentially, your eyes are strained when they get tired due to overuse, and this can cause headaches.

A controlled study a while ago about eye strain factors in chronic headaches found that the eye strain involved when reading printed material can be one of the causes of headaches for 16% of readers. It can also aggravate an existing headache by 55.3% of readers.

In other words, 16 out of 100 readers have reported that they’ve developed a headache while reading, and about 55 out of 100 readers have experienced an aggravation of an existing headache when they keep on reading.

For reading on a digital screen the figures are 14.5% and 31.3%, respectively. Other researchers have also found more or less the same results in their studies.

You might ask – what is the connection between an eye strain and a headache. Why exactly do your eyes get strained while reading? Here are some of the common reasons for that –

1. Reading at a Close Range

When you look at objects that are quite close to the eyes, the muscles in and around the eye need to work a lot harder to maintain a clear vision. Over time, this causes the muscles to strain (just like a body workout causes sore muscles).

Thus, reading at a close range for prolonged periods of time can cause your muscles to strain and lead to a headache.

2. Dry Eyes

When you start out reading just fine, but your eyes get itchy and uncomfortable the more you read ultimately causing a heading, it may be because your eyes are not moist enough! This can happen due to irregular or reduced blinking caused due to reading.

Every time we blink, the surface of the eye gets moistened. Furthermore, when you are reading with great concentration, it often leads to a reduced rate of blinking. This can lead to dry eyes.

Additionally, in some people, dry eyes may be caused due to factors that are not related to reading. And yet, it can lead to a headache while reading.

There are several ways to treat this issue. Your doctor would be in the best position to recommend the most appropriate solution.

3. Both Eyes Don’t Align Correctly

When the two eyes don’t align properly without effort, reading can become difficult and put a strain on the eye muscles as they constantly struggle to re-align and eliminate blurriness and double vision. This heavy strain often results in headaches.

Smaller children with this problem sometimes complain that it hurts to read.

4. Uncorrected Vision

If you have general vision problems and they are uncorrected, your eyes will need to work harder to form clear images when you are reading. This puts stress on your eyes, and tired eyes often lead to eye strain headaches.

Many people with uncorrected general vision issues experience a mild headache all the time. Reading often only aggravates the existing headache and is not the cause of the headache. 

If you have to wear prescribed glasses to correct your reading vision and you read without them you put a great strain on your eyes that can develop into a headache.  

If your eyes haven’t been tested recently by a professional and you frequently experience headaches when reading, visit your local optician to find out if there is a problem with your vision. Prescribed glasses might solve your headache problem!

5. Incorrect Posture

Another factor that can lead to headaches when reading is an incorrect posture.

If you are reading while lying in your bed with a lumpy cushion or a pillow under your head for prolonged periods, it can lead to strain in the neck muscles and ultimately cause a headache. It also often causes blurry vision as it directly relates to the point 1 mentioned above.

To fix this issue, obviously you need to fix your posture.

Check out my other article that talks about the best position to read a book where I share the details on the correct posture to adopt while reading!

6. Using Digital Books

Another factor that can cause strain to the eye that leads to a headache is the use of digital products for reading.

Glare or reflection caused from the screen can cause a strain in your eyes especially when used for long periods of time. This is especially true when reading books on your phone or a tablet. Specialized e-book readers help reduce the glare to a great extend but don’t really fix the problem.

7. Insufficient Light

Having bad light when reading can also directly cause the strain on your eyes.

When the light is not sufficient, your eyes have to strain even more in order to read exactly what is written. This causes strain on your eye muscles and can lead to a headache.

Likewise, when reading a book on a phone or digital device, having a low contrast between the text on the screen and the background of the screen also directly impacts the eye strain even when there is sufficient ambient light in the room.

8. Reading in a Moving Vehicle

Another reason why you may develop a headache while reading is when you carry out the reading activity in a moving vehicle.

Your eye muscles tend to go through excessive stress in trying to adjust to the moving position of your book. This can cause strain to your eye muscles quite quickly!

Typically, when you get a headache due to reading in a moving vehicle, you usually know the reason behind the headache.

How to Identify if the Headache While Reading is Due to Eye Strain?

Photo by Jennyrsmith via Twenty20

Some signs can indicate whether you are suffering from an eye strain headache caused by reading or not.

One of the best ways to know that the headache caused while reading is due to strain on the eye is when it disappears once you take a break! This may not always happen, but it is experienced in most cases.

Eye strain headaches generally appear after you’ve read uninterrupted for a long time, and subside again when you’ve let your eyes rest for a while. Unlike other headaches, eye strain headaches are not associated with nausea and vomiting.

Furthermore, there are times when you may not necessarily have a headache but your eye muscles may be feeling the strain! You may instead feel some pain around the eyes. The area might even feel sore.

As you have already learned, eye strain can be caused due to any of the various factors that are mentioned above.

It is best to do a self-reflection. Try to assess which of the aforementioned causes are a factor in your case, and take the necessary steps to address that issue.

Is it Okay to Read with a Headache?

If you are experiencing a headache, you should not continue to read. This will only make your headache worse!

If you are experiencing an eye strain (with or without a headache), it doesn’t mean your eyes are damaged yet. However, if you continue to read, it will most likely cause damage to your eyes.

The best thing to do when have a headache due to eye strain from reading is to give your eyes some rest. Your headache and other symptoms should go away completely once you’ve rested your eyes.

How to Prevent Headaches when Reading?

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Eye strain is not a common cause of headaches when we look at people in general who are struggling with headaches, but it becomes a causing factor when you only consider frequent readers.

Here are some of the ways you can prevent headaches due to eye strain when reading –

  1. Follow the 20-20-20 rule – This is the golden rule to follow in order to take care of your eyes when reading. This involves looking at an object that is at least 20 feet away, after every 20 minutes for at least 20 seconds!
  2. Use an Artificial Tear – Another thing that can help especially if you experience dry eyes is to use artificial tear. This can help moisturize your eyes and protect it from itchiness and discomfort.
  3. Maintain an Appropriate Reading Distance – It is important to maintain the book at least about 1.5 to 2 feet (about 25 inches) away from your eyes. Avoid reading at a short distance.
  4. Blink Frequently – It is highly advisable to blink often. This will help you maintain the moisture in your eyes and avoid them from getting dry. If this doesn’t help, try using an artificial tear as mentioned above.
  5. Take a Break from Reading – Ensure that when you read (whether it is printed material or on a screen), that you give your eyes time to rest. Generally speaking, you can take a 20 to 25 minute break for every 2 hours of reading.
  6. Adjust Your Reading Posture – The best reading posture is when your back is upright and the reading surface is at the same level as that of your eyes. Do not bend your neck too much as this can cause a strain in your neck and ultimately lead to a headache.
  7. Maintain Sufficient Lighting – When reading on a screen, ensure that the immediate environment has about the same light intensity as your screen. It is best to never to read in the dark or in a very dim light room.

    When reading a book, make sure that the source of the lighting is not placed directly over your head. Meaning, the shadow of your head should not fall on the book as it will create insufficient light on the reading source.

If you have removed the factors that can cause eye strain and you still experience headaches when reading, it’s time to see a doctor or optician.

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