To determine the sensitivity of the electromyography (EMG) response of the orbicularis oculi muscle to selected lower-level visually stressful conditions to establish the extent to which it can be used as a measure of visual discomfort.
Thirty-one subjects (18 years or older) with 20/20 vision, without history of ocular pathology, oculomotor limitation, or cognitive deficits participated in the study. Subjects read on a computer display for 27 trials of 5 min duration under different low-level asthenopic conditions. The conditions were graded levels of font size, font type, contrast, refractive error, and glare. Orbicularis oculi activity was recorded using surface EMG. Blink-free epochs of EMG data were analyzed for power for all the conditions. Blink rate for all the trials was also measured. At the end of each trial, subjects rated the severity of visual discomfort experienced while reading.
Conditions that benefit from squint (refractive error and glare) showed increased EMG power (p < 0.001) from the orbicularis and increased blink rate (p = 0.002), whereas those that do not benefit from squint (small font and low contrast) showed no significant EMG response and a significant decrease in blink rate (p = 0.003 and p = 0.01). All conditions resulted in significant visual discomfort; the p value for font type was 0.039 and p < 0.001 for the other conditions.
The results suggest that the squint-beneficial conditions are operated by a local mechanism involving contraction of the orbicularis and increase in reflex blinking, whereas those that do not benefit from squint do not engage the orbicularis and decrease blink, possibly through central inhibition of spontaneous blinking. The EMG response is a sensitive objective measure for the squint-beneficial conditions. However, for the non-squint-beneficial conditions, blink rate may be a more sensitive objective measure, although EMG with longer trial durations should be tested.