last updated: 5 October 2018 (approximate reading time: 8 minutes; 1555 words)
The physical activity associated with typing does not equate to digging coal or breaking rocks, but it does still have the possibility to cause physical damage to the body.
As someone who types for a living, I’ve experienced pain when typing and—in order to continue to work—I’ve had to change the way I work to reduce that pain. Along the road to reducing my pain, I’ve learned a few things.
And just in case it’s not obvious, I’m not a doctor and this is not medical advice.
If you’re looking at pain when you type, and specifically when you touch-type, the first issue to note is that everyone is different. Physically, every individual is different, the work we undertake is different, and the manner in which we perform that work varies. While the symptoms anyone encounters may be similar, the underlying causes and the resulting changes will be different for every individual.
This piece sets out some of what I’ve learned and the choices I made. You may have symptoms similar to mine, but that doesn’t mean that my solution will work for you. That said, there are certain basic principles and I hope my approach at least gives you a starting point to think about the changes you could make if you are experiencing pain or you are concerned that you may experience pain through typing.
The nature of repetitive injuries is that they are cumulative—even if you don’t currently have a problem, what you are doing today may lead to a problem tomorrow. So if typing matters to you (for instance, it is part of the process by which you earn a living), you might want to think about the steps you can take to prevent future problems.
While typing is an activity that leads to pain, you should also think about your setup and how to achieve a comfortable working environment.
If typing is leading to pain, there are several logical approaches to reduce that pain and to help address the underlying causes.
The first step is to stop typing. If typing is the cause of the problem, then stop typing and let your body recover.
Now clearly, stop typing may not always be practical, so type less may be a better approach. But even so, type less can be hard to achieve. If you’re still doing the thing that cause problems (in other words, you’re still typing) then the improvements may be marginal.
If you still need a way to input text, then look at alternatives to typing. For instance, consider using dictation software.
If you still want/need to type, then make physical adjustments to your typing setup. In other words, get a “better” keyboard—type on a keyboard that causes you less pain. I’ll talk more about this later in this article.
If you need to type and you experience pain when you type, then the practical approach may be a combination of these steps. So:
- Type less.
- When you do type, type on a better keyboard.
- Whenever possible, dictate rather than type.
I’ve mentioned a better keyboard. There is no empirical measure of keyboard goodness, but you can certainly find a keyboard that is better for you—you just need to understand what element of the keyboard is causing your pain when you type.
Keyboards: the Problem
Most keyboards are little different to typewriter keyboards 150 years ago—there’s a small island of letters and numbers grouped together. Modern keyboard innovations have mostly focused on making the surroundings around the keys smaller and reducing key travel all so that the device can be thinner and lighter. None of these innovations improve the typing experience.
Keyboards require the typist to twists their hands and wrists in an unnatural manner and this twisting can lead to a number of physical strains.
The first big twist comes at the forearm/wrist. You can see this if you sit in front of your keyboard with your hands flat pointing away from you (to the left and right of the keyboard). The first twist is to turn your hands so that they are flat on the table. If you then move your hands over the keyboard, you will see your wrists twist to keep your hands vertically (so your fingers are positioned over the home row).
Even before you have typed a single letter, simply moving your hands over the keyboard in this manner is introducing a considerable amount of strain around your wrists.
When you then start typing, you have to move your fingers diagonally as you shift rows—often stretching to reach outer keys. Further, you also need to press a number of key combinations while stretching your hands in this somewhat unnatural manner.
Keyboards: a Few Answers
To address the problems that arise from traditional keyboards, you need to look to something that is not oblong, with tightly packed, diagonally offset keys.
Different keyboards have different features to reduce the stress in typing. These features include:
- A split keyboard. This can literally be a keyboard in two halves or it can be a keyboard with a significant gap between two banks of keys. By opening up the hands, the angle of the wrists can be reduced. Also with a gap between two halves of the keyboard, frequently used keys can be placed under the thumbs (which are stronger and therefore less prone to strain).
- In conjunction with a split keyboard, the two key groups can be angled outward. By turning the key groups for each hand, the angle of the wrist can be further reduced. With a keyboard in two halves, the optimum angle can be readily achieved.
- Matrix layout of the keys. By arranging the keys in rows and columns (rather than being diagonally offset) finger movement from row to row is reduced. Also, some of the longer stretches can be avoided.
- Tenting. By lifting the center of a split keyboard, the angle through which the hands are turned in order to type is reduced, reducing forearm strain.
The keyboard that I have been using for the last ten years or so is the Kinesis Advantage. This is what it looks like (and yes, it is big—I’ve included a regular keyboard for comparison):
If my keyboard looks a bit old and grubby, that’s because it is old and grubby (with cat hair caught under the keys). This is the keyboard that I used for all of the Boniface, Leathan, and Montbretia novels as well as many of my music- and audio-related books.
I chose this for a number of reasons:
- First, the left-hand and right-hand key groups are split.
- Many of the frequently used keys (space, backspace, delete, enter, ctrl, alt) are placed under my thumbs.
- The keys are arranged in something closer to a matrix (it’s essentially a matrix, but arranged in concave “bowls”).
- There is an degree of tenting.
- Mechanical key switches (you can read more about these in this article).
Here are some more pictures of the keyboard to give you a better idea of what this thing looks like.
The album also shows my TypeMatrix keyboard. This has the advantage of a matrix layout and is kinda/sorta split. Kinda/sorta split…but not split enough for my preferences.
I like the Kinesis Advantage, but it’s not the only choice.
If you’ve read about my ultra-mobile computing setup you’ll know that I have a small, foldable bluetooth keyboard. This lightweight keyboard has a split design and the two key groups are angled outward, reducing wrist twist.
Microsoft has been making ergonomic keyboards for years and indeed, were probably the first company to mass-market an ergonomic keyboard. They offer several ergonomic options, one example is the Microsoft Sculpt.
If you’re looking for something more specialized or with more customization options, then take a look at:
Another factor that will affect how much your fingers have to work when they type is the layout of the letters.
The standard QWERTY keyboard layout is something of a historical anachronism. We use that layout because everybody uses that layout and because every keyboard comes with that layout, and every keyboard comes with that layout because everyone uses it.
The QWERTY layout is comparatively inefficient and requires some tortuous stretches with certain letter combinations.
There are other layouts that seek to improve upon QWERTY, each with their own proponents, and each intending to address a different problem. Perhaps the most widely used alternative to QWERTY is the Dvorak layout.
Clearly, choosing a different layout is a big step—it will require relearning how to type. It will also mean that—due to your new learned muscle memory—the QWERTY keyboard will become a foreign country to you, hence laptops (and other devices where swapping out the layout is far less practical) will be far less useable.
That said, if you are currently experiencing pain, re-learning how to type may be good since it will slow your rate of typing thereby reducing the strain on your fatigued muscles.
What’s the Answer?
Unfortunately, there isn’t one single answer.
Instead, you need to try a number of options and see if anything makes a difference. If the change doesn’t help, move on. And as with all changes, only make one change at a time or you won’t know which change works for you.