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Protecting Yourself From Injury While Using a Computer: Part 2: Hand and Arm Problems

by Geoff Hart

Editor’s note: This series of articles is taken from Appendix II of Geoff’s book Effective Onscreen Editing, 3rd edition, which was published in May 2016. Republished for Corrigo with the author’s permission.

Previously published under the same name in Corrigo, newsletter of STC's Technical Editing SIG. Click here to read Part I.

The more you use your computer, the greater the risk you’ll encounter a repetitive-stress injury (RSI) such as carpal tunnel syndrome. That’s not because computers are inherently harder on your body than (say) jogging, but rather because the problems are subtler and develop over longer periods. (Unless you jog 8 hours per day.) RSI results from overuse of a body part without giving it time to recover, so it’s also called an overuse injury. Given how much time modern editors spend at the keyboard, overuse is surely a risk. The most common problems fall into three categories, each of which will be discussed in separate articles:

These articles provide the information you’ll need to understand these problems and take the necessary steps to protect yourself.

Get professional advice: The information in these articles was reviewed by medical and ergonomics professionals, but it is not a substitute for professional advice. If you’re experiencing a problem, or worried that one may be developing, seek medical advice now. Don’t wait for the problem to become serious. It’s easier and less painful to prevent an injury than it is to treat it.

Pay close attention to your hands. Spending a whole day typing is obviously stressful, and carpal tunnel syndrome is just one of many potential consequences. These problems can be difficult to diagnose, and you may need an expert to pinpoint the true problem. Your family doctor is a good place to start troubleshooting your body, but many general practitioners lack the expertise to diagnose RSI problems. Ask to be referred to a specialist who can examine both the unique aspects of your body and how you’re using that body to work.

Position your hands comfortably

Many hand problems arise from flexing your wrist too sharply outwards, with your little finger pointing farther towards your elbow than it would with your arm at rest. Bending your wrists at awkward angles compresses the tissues of your wrist enough to cause pain and, eventually, nerve damage. When I first began experiencing hand pain, switching to Microsoft’s Natural Keyboard helped; that’s the one with the split between the left and right groups of keys and an upward bulge in the middle. The combination kept my arms and wrists straighter while I typed, eliminating much of the stress on my wrists. Logitech and Adesso offer comparable keyboards. More expensive ergonomic keyboards exist, and are worth investigating if you have or are developing serious hand problems. But try the Microsoft and Logitech keyboards first, since they’re inexpensive and sufficiently common that you can find one and try it at most local computer stores.

Keep warm: Cold fingers and finger muscles are more vulnerable to injury, and slow the circulation of blood that removes fatigue poisons and delivers oxygen. Keeping your hands warm mitigates these problems. I’ve used the Handeze gloves, which help, but found an even better solution: I bought a pair of cheap cotton gloves and removed the fingertips. They’re more cumbersome, but warmer. If you try such gloves, ensure they’re not so tight they cut off circulation. No sense trading one problem for another! Some colleagues use “wristies”, which are like turtleneck sweaters for your forearms. They provide enough warmth to keep your arms and fingers flexible.

Reinventing or replacing the keyboard

Many keyboarding problems originate from the standard keyboard’s poor design. The straight arrangement of keys is bad enough, but even ergonomic keyboards create problems from the order of the keys. The traditional QWERTY layout is inherently inefficient, and requires more finger travel than necessary—increasing stress on your fingers. The Dvorak keyboard layout is based on studies of letter frequencies, and minimizes finger travel. Dvorak keyboards are available from many suppliers, but you can instead remap your existing keyboard to use a Dvorak layout; both Windows and the Macintosh let you do this from (respectively) the Languages control panel and the Keyboard preferences panel. If you’re still learning to touch-type, consider learning the Dvorak layout.

If your main computer is a laptop, you may have noticed that the keyboard is an ergonomic disaster. Even when the keys aren’t too close together, they don’t travel as far as a standalone keyboard when you depress them; as a result, your fingers “strike bottom” harder and more often. If you mostly use your laptop at a desk, consider adding a good external keyboard and using that instead. Of course, “different (key)strokes for different folks,” as the saying goes: some of my colleagues find a laptop keyboard more comfortable. See what works best for you!

Whatever keyboard you use, avoid jarring your fingers at the end of each keystroke. It’s easy to wale on the keys so that each keystroke ends with a jolt to your finger. The resulting vibrations travel up your arm, and are worst if your fingers try to travel farther than the keys permit. Enough of these shocks causes sore fingers and arms. Soft-touch keyboards require less pressure and may cushion the impacts, but some people find them too mushy. No matter what keyboard you choose, try not to pound on the keys.

The least stress comes if you don’t strike keys at all, and “keyless” keyboards have been invented to eliminate finger impacts. A few companies make “projection” keyboards that use lasers or LEDs to project the image of a keyboard on your desk; this lets you touch rather than press the keys, greatly reducing the stress on your fingers, and some even let you use finger gestures to replace mousing. There are also software keyboards for tablet computers that let you drag your fingers across the screen instead of tapping an onscreen keyboard. These usually offer prediction of common words (similar to autocorrect on a smartphone) so you can tap the correct word as soon it appears. You can even use your tablet computer as a keyboard for your desktop computer using software such as RemoteMouse for Windows and Macintosh and Air Keyboard for your Macintosh.

Dictation software can potentially eliminate the need for a keyboard. As you speak to your computer, the computer translates your voice into words and types those words for you. There’s usually a learning curve as the software adapts to the unique characteristics of your voice. Such software is built into Windows and the Macintosh, but you may prefer more polished and mature software such as Dragon Naturally Speaking.

Beware awkward keyboard shortcuts: Many keyboard shortcuts are easy to memorize but painful to use. Watch how you hold your hands when you use them, and if the hand position looks or feels awkward, try choosing a less-painful shortcut.

Rest your wrists?

Some people use cushions, bean bags, gel pads, or other devices to support their wrists while they type. Though less painful than resting your palms and wrists on a hard surface, even the softest supports can compress the tissues of your wrist; worse yet, the cheap plastic wrist rests built into many ergonomic keyboards and the flat decks of laptops are no better than resting your hands on the desk. When I began experiencing hand problems, I purchased a foam-rubber rest, and found myself in more pain at the end of the day than before this experiment. When I watched, I saw myself placing pressure on my wrists in the mistaken belief the rubber was protecting them. Some experts suggest that all wrist rests are unsafe, even the softest gel pads, but as always, let your body be the judge.

Ideally, your hands should float above the keyboard, not rest on it—so long as this posture keeps your wrists mostly unbent and doesn’t create additional strain on your shoulders, arms, hands, or fingers. Occasionally resting your palms on a soft support won’t hurt, but only in moderation.


The Cornell University Ergonomics Web:

Read Part III of this article.

©2004–2017 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved