You may wonder why anyone would spend money buying an extra ergonomic keyboard. It seems strange when new PCs come with what look like perfectly decent keyboards.
The answer is that, in some circumstances, computer keyboards are health hazards. They can inflict pain and, in extreme cases, cause long-term physical damage.
But buying a new ergonomic keyboard isn’t straightforward.
Keyboards can hurt you
Typing injuries used to be known RSI (repetitive strain injuries) but are now generally described as occupational overuse syndrome or OOS.
Some people believe the whole business is just a worker compensation rort, but there’s plenty of evidence that keyboard OOS injuries are real. They affects thousands of Australians and New Zealanders every year.
In medical terms the pains might be tendonitis or tenosynovitis.
Both start mildly, with plenty of early warning signs. However, things can quickly turn nasty. In severe cases you could end up with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS), which is described as a squeezing of the median nerve as it runs into hand.
If you reach this point, you certainly won’t be capable of typing.
Some poorly designed computer keyboards are particularly bad because they cause wrists to twist unnaturally. Of course posture, desk and seating height are important – possibly more important than keyboard design – it might pay to look at adjusting these before investing in an ergonomic keyboard.
Your mouse may be worse
Ergonomics experts warn PC mice can cause more problems than keyboards. If you do a lot of typing, it’s a good idea to learn keyboard short cuts in order to cut down on mouse use.
New computers usually come with a traditional ‘straight’ keyboard. Some manufacturers might describe these as ergonomic, but generally the term is reserved for keyboards that better accommodate the human body.
One ergonomic improvement is to split the conventional keyboard down the middle and then angle the two halves outward. This is particularly helpful for people with broad shoulders as it enables them to hold their wrists at a more comfortable angle.
People with narrow shoulders often find a straight keyboard is preferable. Most split keyboards come with a fixed angle, but some are adjustable and others can even be broken apart.
Another improvement is to have a raised area in front of the keys where you can rest the heels of the palms of your hands. Many laptops are designed this way – it’s much better than early designs where the keys started at the front of the case. It is possible to buy separate wrist rests; they come in a variety of designs including rubberised material and gel-filled rests.
Other physical designs include specially recessed keys and giving each key more or less travel – that is the distance that it moves up and down. Some people prefer more travel and audible ‘click’; others are comfortable with silence and a softer touch.
A keyboard with the wrong kind of response will affect your productivity.
Spacing is important
You should take care to ensure that the size and spacing of keys is right for the size of your hands.
If you have small hands then smaller keys, bunched fairly closely together will be more comfortable. Some people like small keyboards because they use up less desk space – but it isn’t wise to work in cramped conditions.
Netbook and laptop computers can be a problem. It may pay to add an external keyboard to these computers when working at home.
There are keyboards that abandon the familiar QWERTY pattern altogether:
- The Dvorak pattern, which is said to be more efficient and therefore less painful.
- Chording keyboards allow you to use key combinations to create letters. Since your fingers stay on the same keys all the time there’s less chance of RSI.
The problem with both is that you’ll need to relearn your typing skills and you’ll experience difficulty if you ever work at another computer.
Sometimes the trouble isn’t so much the keyboard as its position on your desk. Generally it should be set slightly lower than the average desk height. Some workplaces use keyboard trays that sit slightly below the desk. The best ones are height adjustable. Most desk trays also allow you to adjust the slope of the keyboard – counter-intuitively experts recommend that if the keyboard slopes at all, it should slope backwards.
Other keyboard trays are detachable and can rest on your lap. A smart alternative is to use a cordless keyboard on your lap.
Watch out for wireless keyboards and mice
Wireless keyboards and mice may be cool. but people typically have far more trouble with cordless devices than with the corded variety. That’s because they are battery-powered and get progressively harder to use as the batteries run down. If you’re experiencing problems, you may be able to solve things quickly simply by moving back to a cord connected mouse and keyboard.
So, is an ergonomic keyboard essential or not?
Yes and no. The most essential thing is to find a comfortable, reliable keyboard. For years I used an ergonomic keyboard and mouse yet still suffered from occasional pains. That’s because they were wireless devices. The pains left for ever when I ditched the wireless keyboard and mouse for the flat, but cabled keyboard that came with my computer and invested $40 in a brand new ergonomic, yet cabled mouse. They’re not as cool as the wireless alternatives, but they are reliable and comfortable. That’s more important.
One last tip; if you’re in serious pain, try voice recognition software. It’s far from perfect and you will need to do some keyboarding, yet it has reached the point where it works well enough to rest sore hands.
Ergonomic Web Sites
Includes details on the various alternatives to conventional computer keyboards and why you may want to use them.
British RSI FAQ
A bare-bones backgrounder to keyboard injuries and RSI.
Wide-ranging site looking at a variety of computer health-related issues. There’s a good section on ergonomic issues for kids.