Visual stress: what is it?

Have you ever heard of a condition called visual stress? It might sound like it’s to do with tired eyes from too much screen time, but actually it’s not related to eye function at all.

SSW Manager Sonia became aware of differences in her vision in her late thirties. But, as everyone’s eyesight is unique to them, it was difficult for her to ascertain if everyone’s sight was like hers. 

It was years before Sonia began to investigate as, fortunately for her, it wasn’t (and doesn’t now) interfering significantly with her ability to read. She said: “I’ve always struggled with glare and needed sunglasses throughout the year but since my late 30’s I’ve noticed that my field of vision fluctuates with blotchy or grainy interference. Depending on how bad it is, I can forget about it, but sometimes it can be a real nuisance and distraction.”

photo of a selection of coloured glasses in a storage rack

The coloured filters used to test someone who may have visual stress

Sonia made an appointment to have a Colorimetry test and, following this, the Optometrist confirmed she suffers from visual stress. The test involves reading a paragraph of repetitive words with different coloured lenses and timing the reading speed. There are so many different colour variations, so the process involves narrowing down by choosing between types of colour and then shades.

So what is visual stress?

Visual stress, sometimes referred to as Meares-Irlen or Irlen syndrome, is a neurological perceptual processing disorder. Lines of text are rather like a striped pattern. When some people look at black and white stripes of specific width and spacing, it causes visual distortions and illusions. Thes edistortions are due to hyper-excitability in the part of the brain known as the visual cortex. It is thought that when some people try to read, the ‘stripy’ effect of the lines of print cause symptoms affecting their ability to read the text. There appears to be a link between visual stress and Dyslexia, though you can have either without the other.

photo shows two examples of distorted text

Examples of how text can look for someone with visual stress / Irlen syndrome

What are the symptoms of visual stress?

  • Headaches, eyestrain
  • Blurring of print
  • Words moving and appearing to jump out of the page
  • Colours in the text
  • Glare, page too bright
  • Losing place, skipping words or lines
  • Poor understanding of text being read

How can I get tested?

Unfortunately, Colorimetry testing at this time is not available on the NHS and specialist optometrists are not widely found. For West Sussex residents, Sonia recommends Forbes Eyecare Ltd in Chichester. If you live further afield, try the Cerium Visual Technologies website where you can search for a specialist in your area.

Feel free to get in touch with SSW if you’d like to chat with Sonia or any of the team about your visual condition.