Published May 27, 1999

Ergonomic Keyboards & Repetitive Strain Injury

Repetitive strain injury (RSI) is no joke -- and it doesn't affect just secretaries. Small business owners who do the bulk of typing themselves are also at risk for this painful condition.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration estimates that up to one-third of those who regularly use word processing programs will suffer at least some symptoms of RSI, such as stiffness or pain in the hands, neck or back. RSI is not the same as carpal tunnel syndrome (a specific type of RSI), which contrary to popular belief is not usually triggered by computer use.

An ergonomic keyboard can significantly reduce your risk of developing RSI. "Ergonomic keyboard" can mean anything from a traditional keyboard that tilts to one with a radically reconfigured shape. There are many models and features to choose from. And best of all, they don't have to be expensive.

Many people seeking greater typing comfort opt for a "split keyboard," which has a small, pie-shaped cut out in the center. The two separate sections are rotated slightly outward to promote a more natural wrist position. Rather than being flat, split keyboards are typically raised in the center and sloped outward to fit the curve of the hands. Some even let you adjust the front-to-back tilt for optimal comfort via recessed flaps under the keyboard.

After years of typing on a conventional keyboard, split keyboards do take some getting used to. The contoured slope alters the alignment of your whole body, pushing your elbows outward into a more comfortable position for your shoulders. While it may feel awkward at first, it will keep your muscles strain-free in the long run.

Some keyboards take ergonomic design ever further, completely redefining the look of a keyboard and even changing the positions of the keys. One keyboard places commonly-used command keys -- like the spacebar, backspace, control and delete keys -- where they can be struck by the typist's thumbs. The remaining keys are located in wells in the sides of the keyboard.

Typing isn't the only activity that produces RSI; using a mouse to point and click can also strain the tendons in your hand and wrist. Because of this, many ergonomic keyboards offer alternate ways to move the cursor around the screen. You can choose from built-in touch pads or buttons, both of which let you click and drag with taps of your fingers. Another mouse alternative is the pointing stick, which is typically located between the "B," "G" and "H" keys on the keyboard. You can reach it easily with either forefinger and manipulate it with very little pressure. With this device, you can scroll through documents, drag text and select it with the press of a button.

To get your new ergonomically correct keyboard to work on an older PC, you might need a special PS/2 keyboard adapter. Some manufacturers automatically include an adapter with their newer keyboards. If yours doesn't, you can pick one up for a few dollars at your local computer store.