Until a couple of months ago my main focus on buying input devices for computers was based on performance and price. I mean, in general that is how one goes about spending money, right? Check the spec sheet and see if it’s worth it. That’s how I always buy my things. I make up my mind that I need something and then I visit my preferred retailer websites and compare the prices. At my home desktop I am a bit more demanding than at work where I simply used (past tense) what came with the computer, but ergonomics never played a role. Boy has that changed.
It has been about two to three months since this all started and I think I’m over the worst of the symptoms now. Let me tell you, don’t underestimate ergonomic input devices! They exist for a reason. But it’s not just about the mouse and the keyboard. If you’re oblivious to the fact that working full time sitting on a desk and typing stuff into a computer can actually cause injuries (yes, they are called injuries) you’re inviting trouble for dinner.
What those injuries are? Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI for short), carpal tunnel syndrome, typewriters cramp and, a classic, pain in the back. But there’s more than just that. It can affect your whole body if you have the wrong posture, like pain in the neck and shoulders as well. You need to set your table and chair at the correct height and set the monitors to an appropriate angle too (not to mention brightness). But this is just a side note for completeness sake.
For the longest time I haven’t had any problems. For years I’ve been playing basketball in a team, I commute to work preferably by bike, I go running twice a week and I regularly work out (for a naturally skinny nerd I like to think I have a rather physical appearance). I know my back is a liability so I’m particular on how I sit at a desk and for how long at a time. Even though I don’t have an Apple Watch (and probably won’t anytime soon), I stand up about once an hour and take a short walk in the parking lot. In short, I can rule out the overall body problems I mentioned in the previous paragraph. With that said, I was very surprised when “out of nowhere” it hurt like hell to touch a mouse and type on a keyboard. Just these few paragraphs already make themselves felt in my arms while I’m typing them on a Surface Pro 3 propped up on a table with the Type Cover attached (which has terrible ergonomics by the way).
Going back a few years, I wonder how I managed to get along with an Apple Magic Mouse. But maybe that was even the beginning of it all. The thing is, apart from a little sting in the hand here or a bit of pain there once in a while, there wasn’t much to notice. It was mostly to blame on the long hours holding the mouse and moving fingers over the keyboard. I didn’t have any problems away from the computer and as soon as I got back to one it was okay. But in reality those were the first harbingers of what was to come. Until one day, at least it felt like it happened overnight, it was as if my hands were on fire (not “The girl on fire” [Hunger Games reference]). Pain was spreading up the forearm and typing on any keyboard was bad and holding a mouse, especially that tiny son of a pointing device I used at work, was even worse. My hobby turned into a nightmare. And now it also affected my daily life. Riding a bike, uncomfortable. Working out, painful. Gaming? Out of the question. I certainly dropped the F-Bomb a few times then.
So what was wrong with my gear and why? And how did I change it for the better?
Before we can go into details, you have to know a bit more about the natural position for your arms and hands. This is actually quite easy. To get a sense of the “built-in” default, simply stand up and let your arms and hands rest comfortably at your side. You will see that your hands are rotated inwards in an angle of about 45 degrees. Now place your hands flat on the table. Do you notice how this differs from the relaxed position? You force another 45° rotation. Now place your hand on the mouse and examine the position again (this is very dependent on the mouse). The default mice I have encountered that are being shipped with a computer are usually too small and too narrow and sometimes have an awkward form. An extreme example is Apple’s Magic Mouse but this bringer of pain from Dell is no better.
If you plan to purchase a computer, set aside some money for additional ergonomic peripherals if not already included. You may be lucky and, depending on where you shop, are able to customize your order and include a decent mouse and keyboard. But only if it’s not from Apple (which is not to say the quality is bad).
Worst case scenario using a mouse: you rest the heel of your hand on the table and use only your fingertips to move the mouse (claw grip). This way you put a lot of strain on your wrist (tilting it upwards) and also the back of your hand (and ultimately up your arm). You are never resting your fingers and the position of your wrist is likely to cause pain in the long run by squeezing nerves that go through this area (carpal tunnel syndrome).
It is much better using the palm grip where you basically swallow the complete mouse with your hand. But for that to work out nicely you need the right one. More on that later.
Moving on to the keyboard, you typically have to overcome quite a height to reach the keys, again, tilting your wrists uncomfortably. It gets even worse when you expand the feet of the keyboard to raise its back even higher. I don’t know why these things still exist. The time where a computer keyboard had to mimic a typewriter should long be gone, because, you know, who is using typewriters these days? Maybe hardware makers are just sadists. Or, some people might actually like to punish themselves. All kidding aside, in practice this all but ergonomic. But not only that. Since most people’s shoulders are broader than the average keyboard you even have to twist your hands to the outside to be able to type.
Of course there are means to remedy the pain. Some require different hardware and some require you to step away from the computer in regular intervals and try to relax your hands and arms. If something is causing pain then maybe you should stop doing it. For people that earn their livelihood in front of a computer, like I do, this is not an option so special care must be taken.
Let me start with the mouse again. For work I’m using a Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Mouse and for gaming the Speedlink Decus Gaming Mouse. Both mice have their drawbacks, but both are still the best I was able to find so far.
The Microsoft mouse tries to keep the natural rotation of the arm, which is good, and also, through its height, raises your arm to prevent tilting your wrist. This, of course, warrants that you palm-grip the mouse and don’t try to put your wrist on the table. The drawback: I think it was designed for small Asian people. When I place my hand over that thing, and I have normal hands, I can’t really use the scroll wheel. If you hold it so using the scroll wheel is comfortable, there’s no real rest for the palm part of your hand. The mouse is like a ball rather than a cone. That’s the result when you combine design and ergonomics, two disciplines that usually don’t work well together. The mouse should be a little longer so I could rest more of my hand on it. Apart from that it really helped bringing down the pain and contain it. It takes some time getting used to, though. If I have to work on another computer for a prolonged period of time (5 minutes and up), I now always take that mouse with me, collecting some strange looks from my colleagues.
When it comes to gaming the Speedlink mouse is near to perfect for this purpose. It has dedicated places to rest all of your fingers! Obviously, index and middle finger go on the left and right button. The thumb can be placed on the left side and there are recesses for the ring finger and pinky as well, on the right side of the mouse. That means you can slap your hand on top of it and just let it rest. No holding necessary. On the con side I must say that it could be a bit higher though and a little rotation to better mimic the natural position of the hand would be nice as well. The arc is a tiny bit too low for my taste, but that is something I can compensate for by putting a little piece of cloth on top of it. In that regard I really love the Logitech G400s that I had used before. Unfortunately it had no place to rest the pinky. It would either slide across the mousepad (which I hate) or I would have to press it against the side of the mouse – which is not resting but cramping. If anyone from Logitech is reading this (a man can have dreams, right?) then please design a mouse like the G400s that has places to rest all five fingers of one’s hand (or four fingers and the thumb if you’re that kind of person), like the Speedlink Decus.
Regarding keyboards I went with another Microsoft product, namely the Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000. This thing is huge, but due to its separated blocks of keys and the height it really supports a more natural position of your hands and arms.
I have experimented with different heights and for now I settled with a lower setting. Make no mistake, the only two options this keyboard offers are big and small, i.e. having the stand attached or not. When you take the front off, the ergonomics really go down. That is because the back is so high that you have to tilt your wrists again, despite the palm rest. I placed a couple of towels underneath it until I felt it was good enough. It is now roughly a centimeter lower than with the stand.
Nevertheless, even the “extreme” height provided and still provides a much more relaxed typing experience than with my previous keyboard. The biggest drawback: it could be wider on the left side. Very often the heel of my hand is very close to the edge which can get uncomfortable after a while. This happens a lot when I use the CTRL key as part of keyboard shortcuts.
At home I also put a towel underneath my keyboard to raise it and in front of it I placed a palm rest wrapped in a cloth (to separate skin from the gel surface). This is much lower than the Microsoft keyboard and it doesn’t have the separate key blocks but it feels good so far.
Regarding height, I did something similar for the mouse. I raised its position by putting it on top of a small piece of wood and in front of that I placed another palm rest. It looks totally crazy but it actually works. The keyboard is not as optimal as the one from Microsoft, but I don’t type as much at home and as already said it is quite comfortable still. Most of the time I only have one hand resting on it anyway, to use the WASD keys. For that purpose I can rotate the keyboard to my liking. In addition to that, I don’t have as much space at home as I have at work. I’m not sure that spaceship sized keyboard (probably a prop of the Independence Day movie) would fit comfortably – something you have to keep in mind too. No space on your desk = no comfortable working place.
As for the part where you have to have breaks at regular intervals: I really mean it. Get away from your computer, walk around for a few minutes (which is why the Apple Watch will nag you every hour) and try to relax your hands, maybe shake or massage them. For the latter I’m using a porcupine ball, mostly when I’m waiting for results, thinking about software design or whatever it is that makes the computer or I take a moment of time.
This is a serious issue and therefore you should treat it that way, no matter if you are experiencing any symptoms or not. If you’re lucky, you never will. If you make just a few changes to how you work with your computer there’s a good chance for that to come true, just like exercising keeps your cardiovascular system in shape. Nothing is for free.