Confounded by Keyboards
People who experience wrist or forearm pain from using computers often welcome the idea of so-called ergonomic keyboards, which claim to reduce the risk of injury and increase comfort. But do they really help prevent RSI? And if so, which ones are best?
When it comes to typing, Woody Woodpecker has us all beat. His vise-like feet, bracing tail feathers, strong beak, and shock-absorbing skull equip him perfectly for high-speed hammering.
Unlike woodpeckers, humans aren't built for rapid-fire bursts of repetitive strokes, yet we're expected to perform this highly unnatural act with computer keyboards. And this activity is partially responsible for the skyrocketing incidence of repetitive strain injury (RSI) in recent years. Why is the computer keyboard culpable?
Consider just a few of the pitfalls: Keeping the muscles in one position –such as holding your hands over a keyboard or using a mouse- exhausts them, setting the stage for injury. Prolonged elbow bending stretches the ulnar nerve, an activity that, over time, can lead to damage. Repetitive flexing and twisting of the wrist to reach faraway keys can lead to tendon and nerve damage. Simply holding the hand palm-down can strain muscles and nerves.
If your neck, forearms, and wrists ache after a session at the keyboard, there's a good reason for it: Humans simply aren't built for typing.
FROM QWERTY TO COCKAMAMIE
So how did we get into this mess?
Computer keyboard designers embellished the original QWERTY layout without considering the way the human hand would be adversely affected. They added Function keys above the top row, forcing fingers to stretch farther. Designers placed Enter, Backspace, and Ctrl near the pinkies, the weakest fingers. If they understood anything about hand function, they might have designed something less harmful.
Typewriters, with their terraced rows of keys, prevented wrist-resting, a leading factor in injury. But the modern standard keyboard is flat and, to make matters worse, can have a kickstand that raises the back end. People often figure that since the kickstand is there, it must be used, so they hike it as high as possible. If they rest their wrists as they type, their wrists are bent at an extreme angle, which is a good way to get a rip-roaring injury.
While the typewriter balanced the work between two hands, the computer keyboard forces the right hand to do more than its share of the work by placing Enter, Backspace, the number pad, and several other frequently used keys on the right-hand side.
IT’S LABELED “ERGONOMIC” – SO IT MUST BE GOOD, RIGHT?
With the advent of RSI, manufacturers have rushed to create "ergonomic" keyboards, with varying degrees of success. Despite the design flaws of the standard keyboard, many people assume manufacturers know what they're doing when they come up with so-called ergonomic designs. That's the first mistake.
The second mistake is assuming that using a different keyboard will cure your pain. Ergonomics is far more helpful in preventing problems. All too often, by the time people are willing to spend money on proper equipment, they should actually be under a doctor's care, relying on rest--not new gadgets--to treat their ailment.
This is not to say that better engineering won't vastly improve the standard keyboard, which has many faults. It forces users to put their wrists into a palms-down position (the medical term is pronation). It encourages the user to make a sideways twist of the wrist to reach the Enter key (called ulnar deviation) and to take the bent-wrist position of a police officer halting traffic (called dorsiflexion).
WHY KEYBOARDS CAN'T CURE
Labeling an input device "ergonomic" can be a lot like calling a food loaded with sugar, salt and fat "natural." Some accessories bearing this term are in fact not useful in preventing injuries and can actually promote problems, such as having built-in wrist rests that keep your hands further away from the keys, thus straining the shoulders.
Even a keyboard that allows you to place your hands at a less stressful angle can't compensate for other equally potent risk factors, such as overuse, improper posture, and weak upper back muscles. To avoid injury, you must heed recommendations about technique, posture, pacing, exercise and workload.
However, there are certain keyboard designs that can reduce arm and hand strain.
HOW TO CHOOSE A KEYBOARD
We’ve established that ergonomic keyboards aren't a cure-all for RSI. But given the problems with standard keyboards, you are better off with an adjustable keyboard that has the following features.
A look at the risk factors for RSI -- including typing speed, repetition, poor posture, sedentary behavior, poor technique, too much force and awkward positioning -- is informative. Changing the angle of the keyboard will help with awkward positioning, but it won't solve any of the other problems, and therefore can be of only limited use in preventing injuries. And as problematic as the keyboard is, many ergonomists consider its alternative, the mouse, to be far more dangerous.