The necessity to take care of your hands, arms and wrists while typing is often something that only occurs to people when it’s already too late. Bad typing habits and unergonomic positions only then become apparent because they start causing pain. This is one of the fundamental reasons why hand, arm and wrist pain, RSI, carpel tunnel syndrome and tendinitis are so common especially among programmers, writers, tradies and office workers.
Fortunately, if you don’t have any of these chronic or acute ailments, then by reading this article you’ve had the foresight to prevent them before they occur. If you already have one of these injuries, then it is likely causing you pain and discomfort at work, so by following these tips you should find relief, and speed your recovery.
Touch Typing—Is it Better or Worse for Hand/Arm/Wrist Pain, RSI, tendinitis, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
Whether touch typing helps or harms your hands, arms and wrists is a point of debate among ergonomics and tech enthusiasts But we believe the root of this disagreement is the purist method of touch typing, rather than the practice per se.
Here are the pro/cons of touch typing at the heart of this debate:
- Shares the burden among all of the fingers more evenly than most other typing methods e.g. two-finger typing.
- Less finger movement and hand-stretching to reach for keys.
- Tends to make you press the keys softer, because you don’t have as much weight behind each finger as in e.g. hunt-and-peck typing.
- The pinky fingers have to crane to hold the modifier keys (control, shift, alt) while key chording (e.g. Ctrl+c)
- Keeping fingers in the ‘resting position’ (fingers on the ‘home row’ keys: asdf, jkl;) puts strain on the fingers.
And these are only the hand/arm/wrist ergonomic pro/cons. Other pros include of course speed, accuracy and posture ergonomics because you don’t have to look at the keyboard.
The best-of-both-worlds solution to touch typings pro/cons that yours truly uses is to loosen up his touch typing technique so that fingers only go into the resting position before typing. When resting, I put my middle fingers above the home row, but keep my indexes on f and j (the keys with the little bumps on them on good keyboards). I then don’t stretch my fingers to reach any distant key, I let my hand leave the resting position and hover closer to where I want to reach.
Solutions to the ‘pinky’ problem (aka ‘Emacs pinky’) are coming up in a moment…
Ergonomic Keyboard Usage
Here are some more general types as to how to avoid tendinitis, RSI and other hand, arm and wrist pain when typing on a keyboard. Ergonomic keyboard technique includes:
- Don’t press the buttons too hard. In fact, gamers and keyboard enthusiasts on the internet often brag about how they don’t ‘bottom out’ the keys when they type (don’t press the keys all the way down). This gives maximum speed and minimum impact when typing, but requires patience to learn. Soft typing is a good start.
- Press the keys with the pads of your fingers rather than the ends at least when pressing most of the keys. This provides a cushioned impact, therefore softer typing.
- Keep your fingernails trimmed. This prevents the force of typing from travelling straight through hard nails into your fingers.
- Don’t wrest wrists on table or keep them too high above the hand. Your hand should be level, floating over the keyboard with your fingers dropping onto it.
- Learn an alternative keyboard layout like Dvorak or Colemak. These reduce finger movement and finger stretching but can make keyboard shortcuts harder. A great place to learn is The Typing Cat.
Ergonomic Computer Software—Macros, Hotkeys, Keyboard-Driven, Avoiding the Mouse
The third element in ergonomic typing, along with hardware and technique—software. These software recommendations aim to reduce mouse usage, reduce keypresses, reduce stretching your fingers and the distance travelled to reach keys and incidentally, make you more efficient as well:
- Map the Space key to work as a control key as well. Space is the biggest most accessible key on the keyboard. Control is almost used as much but is one of the smallest least accessible and largest culprits for hand/arm/wrist injuries e.g. ‘Emacs pinky’. Scripts like BigCtrl for Autohotkey (Windows) allow you to use Space in combination with other keys as a Control modifier, but also just press it normally as a Space. One of the best kept secrets in computing.
- Map Caps Lock to Escape. This is another classic ergo-efficiency mapping. Especially for Vim users for whom the Escape key is essential. You can download my Autohotkey script (Windows) here that remaps Caps Lock » Escape, Escape » Down Arrow (for ergonomic left-hand scrolling), Control + the new Escape » Caps Lock and also displays a visual screen indicator when Caps Lock is activated.
- Learn the keyboard shortcuts (hotkeys) of the applications you use most. Every application has hotkeys now, even many web apps and many apps even let you map your own. Some useful ones you may not know to get you started: top/bottom of page (many web browsers)—Home/End, toggle fullscreen (Youtube)—f.
- Use Vim. Vim is a text editor with ergonomics, efficiency and potential surpassing any adequate summary within a bullet point. Key chording (e.g. Ctrl-c, Alt-Tab)—the most unergonomic thing about keyboard usage, is kept to a minimum. Most commands are typed like normal e.g. c, daw. If Vim is too alien to include into your workflow, you could consider a Vim emulator plugin for your current software. Such exists for Sublime Text, Visual Studio, Microsoft Word, Emacs and many more.
- Use dictation software. This is software that lets you command your computer just by speaking—without even touching the keyboard, and you can type surprisingly fast using it. The best dictation software (and that isn’t a hotly contested opinion like most ‘best’ apps) is Dragon NaturallySpeaking for Windows/Mac. It’s quite a piece of engineering and the ultimate in ergonomics if you take the time to get used to it and ‘train’ it.
And there are even more software solutions out there than this, these are just what yours truly has benefited from. I know a lot about ergonomics and efficiency that’s for sure, but there’s always more to discover.
This is a topic that yours truly researched thoroughly before finally deciding to invest the money on an ErgoDox Ez—a decision that I’m extremely proud of. But instead of dictating your decision towards my personal favourite, I’ll tell you some traits to look for in a good ergonomic keyboard:
- Angled layout: this angling allows your hands to rest in a more natural position, thus relaxing some of the rigidity of the touch typing ‘resting position’.
- Mechanical keys: mechanical keys absorb the impact of your key presses far better than flat laptop-style keys.
- Not too thick: if you end up having to tilt your hands upwards to type on it, then this defeats the ergonomic benefits of the keyboard. You should be able to maintain a horizontal hand position.
- Not angled upward: for the same reason—keyboards angled upwards at the back by default, often to accomodate their battery pack are a recipe for carpal tunnel syndrome.
- Easily accessible modifier keys: the control, shift, alt, command, windows keys and etc should be easy to key chord with e.g. pressing Ctrl+c shouldn’t stretch your tendons too much.
Ergonomic Mouse Usage and Pointing Device Usage
The main tip for ergonomic mouse usage is: avoid the mouse. But that’s not practical for several human and UX reasons. So for when the mouse comes in handy, here are some hints to keep your hands/arms/wrists free from pain and injury:
- Switch hands: learning to use your mouse with your non-dominant hand—for most people their left hand, is a skill your hands will thank you for. Most people with an overuse injury from computing will have it more strongly or exclusively in their dominant hand/arm, so this can definitely help.
- Don’t wrest wrist: like when typing, keep your hand in a horizontal position inline with your arm.
- Don’t use mouse buttons for much more than clicking: so, from experience+knowledge, mouses are better than keyboards at just scrolling and clicking through GUI interfaces. Not copying, saving, reloading, etc. Gaming mouses make it possible to replace so many of the keyboard’s functions with the mouse, even though the keyboard is clearly more ergonomic and efficient when used correctly. I’ve got my mouse buttons mapped to PageUp/Down, and even then…
- Don’t use your touchpad: your mouse is way more ergonomic and efficient, it’s worth mustering the effort to reach for it.
Ergonomic Mouses and Pointing Devices
An ergonomic mouse is another worthy investment considering how much we use our computers. The best ergonomic ‘mouses’ aren’t even mouses to be honest, but are alternative pointing devices. Here are a few to consider:
- Trackball: trackballs avoid the wrist-flicking that is so often a cause of RSI and carpal tunnel syndrome. There are numerous types and designs, but my pointing device is the Logitech M570 Wireless Trackball for the way it combines mouse precision with trackball ergonomics at a reasonable price.
- Styluses: the ergonomics of a pen plus greater-than-mouse precision. Great for digital art and a fine option.
- Touchpad: not a good option. Unergonomic and not as efficient as many others because of the tendency for the finger to hit the end of the pad when moving and have to re-orient itself.
- Joysticks: better for gaming. Lack precision yet are quite ergonomic.
- Then there are people who have set up Nintendo Wii controllers, game console remotes and etc to interact with their computers. This kind of thing is very cool but I can’t comment on the ergonomics/efficiency.
This article was compiled from lots of knowledge gleaned from internet articles, others opinions and from my own experience in the topic. My aim in writing it was to allow others to reach the stage I have where I’m not only working ergonomically, but highly efficiently.