Are you a computer user in this keyboarding age whose arms, wrists, or hands hurt from typing or mousing too much? Even if you don’t have full blown RSI or carpal tunnel, pain after using the computer too much can be disabling. Also, pain that only happens for a little while after you use the computer can be a signal that you may be in store for worse if you don’t change the way you do things.
These suggestions are arranged roughly in order of how drastic they are – I suggest that you go through the list in order, doing the things suggested at each step before proceeding to the next step. And please, see your doctor about any unusual pain or other symptoms – a blog article is never any substitute for proper medical advice!
Taking regular rest breaks – even if they’re only 30 seconds long – is vital to give your body time to move and relieve the strain of using a computer.
There are applications which can remind you to take both short and long breaks – short breaks are usually under a minute, just time for you to shake out your wrists and look away from the screen, where long breaks are 5-10 minutes for getting up and stretching and moving totally away from the computer where possible.
Generally these applications are very configurable and some offer fancier functions such as guiding you through body-friendly break exercises or offering a way to postpone a break for a short amount of time. Here are some that I have had good luck with using:
Fix Your Ergonomics
Make sure that your work area is arranged as ergonomically as possible. This will reduce strain on all parts of your body including wrists, arms, shoulders, neck, and back. Simply rearranging the height of your monitor or keyboard, for example, can make a huge difference in comfort.
It is a little more difficult for laptop or mobile device users to arrange their space ergonomically, but it is still possible to make improvements. Here it is some information about optimal ergonomics for desktop and laptop computer users:
- Ergonomics for computer workstations
- Ergonomics for laptop users
- Reducing the risk of head and neck pain from tablet computer use
- Mobile phone ergonomics
For people who primarily use a keyboard or a switch interface, using keyboard shortcuts can save a lot of time and effort, and even people who can easily use both keyboard and mouse may find ergonomic benefits to using the mouse less.
The good news about all that is you can reduce the amount of stress on your “mousing arm” by minimising your use of the mouse. Print out the basic OS X keyboard shortcuts handout and stick it up near your screen when you can easily refer to it while you’re computing. Use a program such as KeyCue to help you learn and remember keyboard shortcuts specific to the programs you use. With just these two simple techniques you can drastically reduce the number of times you reach for the mouse each day, and hence reduce the extra stress on your mouse hand.
Change Your Mouse
A different type of mouse won’t remove the stress entirely but an ergonomic mouse can reduce mouse-related strain on your arm. If the new mouse is sufficiently different then it could also move the stress around to different arm muscles – this might give the currently-strained parts of your arm time to heal if you also use the other techniques in this list.
There are a lot of different options for moving your mouse pointer around the screen, these are just some of them:
- External bluetooth Magic Trackpad from Apple – this is my standard pointing device
- Use your iPod Touch/iPhone as an external multi-touch trackpad with an application such as PearPad
- Vertically oriented mouse
- Left handed mouse
- Joystick mouse
These are just a smattering of the possible pointing devices. With a little research on google, using terms like “ergonomic mouses”, “ergonomic trackball”, and “mouse alternatives” you should be able to find many more which could suit you.
If you don’t use the mouse much or you’re somewhat ambidextrous, you might try mousing with your other hand for some of each day. In my experience this drives me nuts in short order, but some people swear by it.
There a lot of ergonomic keyboards out there, some more ergonomic than others. I have a Kinesis Advantage ergonomic keyboard which I use to great advantage sitting directly in my lap. I suggest you visit somewhere that you can sit down and try different ergonomic keyboards in an environment like your usual environment before you spend money on them. Ergonomic keyboards can be quite expensive and it’s a very individual thing – something that helps one person may harm another, and vice versa.
Ergonomic keyboards, especially those like the Kinesis where some of the keys are moved about, take a bit of getting used to. Try to give yourself several weeks before you “give up” using a keyboard, it’s always going to feel awkward when you start.
Here are some ergonomic keyboards – again, google for more.
Dvorak refers to an arrangement of keys which is different to the usual one found in English-speaking countries. The keys are arranged so the most used letters are on the keys are directly under your fingers and the letters and symbols which are used the least are further away. It takes a lot of effort to re-learn where all the keys are but typing with the Dvorak layout is much easier on the fingers because they move less. It’s worth it in the end.
I’ve written about different keyboard layouts, including Dvorak, in the past.
Dwell clicking is done by a piece of software that tracks your mouse movements as you move your cursor around the screen. When you move your cursor to the position where you would like to click and bring your mouse to a stop for a short amount of time, the software generates a click for you. Most dwell clicking software can do double click, right click/command click and also do mouse dragging as well as regular single clicks. These are done by selecting the requested type of click from a small palette which sits on your screen.
Options for OS X include:
Speak Instead Of Typing
Dragon Dictate for OS X (previously known as MacSpeech Dictate) converts your speech into words on the computer screen instead of you typing them, and contains commands for editing and moving around documents and other application commands. It works best if you use it when you will be typing long passages, like this article. Dictate can replace almost all of the keyboard use needed for these chores.
Since Mountain Lion, Mac OS X itself now also has built in dictation abilities. I have not fully explored this area, but I understand these are less complete and less advanced than those supplied by Dragon Dictate.
On your iOS Device Siri or Voice Commands will let you speak instead of typing, although they are also less complete replacements than those available for desktop computers.
Hopefully one day we’ll have Star Trek level understanding of speech, or neural interfaces where the computer is activated by thought, but until then take a stab at these methods. With all of them together – or as many as you need – you should be able to use the computer more effectively and with less pain.
– Ricky Buchanan
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