Over the past five years my time spent in front of a computer has dramatically increased. Work started right after school ended. There have been very few days during this time that did not involve typing. Unfortunately, all this typing led to developing pains in my wrists and forearms. I knew these pains were not something to mess around with, but it took some effort before I decided to actually do something. I attempted to tough it out. My pigheadedness lasted until things became pretty uncomfortable.
Convenience vs. Comfort
Purchasing wrist braces was my first attempt at helping myself. They ended up postponing the pain or inflicted some of their own. These things now sit in a plastic bin in my closet and have been for several years now. In my experience, the braces were a waste of money.
I needed a new remedy. Things were not getting any better on their own and my routine was not helping the situation. My job depended on my hands typing during the day. My graduate classes required me to type during the night. My side projects also depended on my hands typing. I was, and still am, basically typing all day. To make things worse, other activities that involved my hands, like drawing, began causing pain in my wrist and forearms. Researching repetitive stress injuries (RSI) eventually led me to diagrams and videos instructing me in stretching my forearms.
Trial and Error
Stretching helped. Compared to the braces, the benefit was almost immediate. It felt good to stretch my forearms. I tried getting into the habit of stretching daily. Some days I forgot. Other days I would bring back the braces for a few hours. Whenever I finally decided to take action it was always at the last possible moment. Left arm hurts more than usual? Stretch. Can’t shake the pain in my right wrist? Time for the brace. This is obviously not the solution. If anything, I was inflicting more pain on myself. I should have just scheduled an appointment with my doctor. That never happened, though. I continued with my dodgy stretch and brace routine for a period of time until I finally decided to do something that actually helped.
Ergonomics to the Rescue
Ergonomics is about ‘fit’: the fit between people, the things they do, the objects they use and the environments they work, travel and play in. If good fit is achieved, the stresses on people are reduced. They are more comfortable, they can do things more quickly and easily, and they make fewer mistakes.
– Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors
Up until this point in my life I never put too much thought into optimizing the way I worked with a computer. I knew that sitting straight was better than slouching, but that was about it. I never took the time to adjust anything else in my environment.
You should take a few seconds to check your posture. Try being mindful of a few things:
- Are you looking up or down at your monitor?
- Are your hunched over your keyboard?
- Are your legs or feet doing anything weird under your desk?
- Are your wrists awkwardly positoned?
If you are answering yes to these questions your work environment could probably use an adjustment.
Below is what I have done to create a work environment that has changed the way I work with a computer and, ultimately, my life.
The Mouse ($110)
After some research I ordered a Evoluent VerticalMouse 4. Other than the MX500 for gaming, this is the best mouse I have ever purchased. It feels natural, it is wireless, and it only requires one AA battery (which lasts for months).
It is about $30 more than Apple’s magic mouse, but it is well worth the price. The difference was dramatic. This mouse began diminishing my wrist pain after the first day of using it.
I recommend avoiding the Apple Magic Mouse and small notebook mice, like the Logitech VX Nano. These devices are too flat or small for my hand. Forcing your hand into an awkward position for hours is a great way to fatigue your forearm muscle. This is what I was doing to my arm all day by using a tiny, flat keyboard and a tiny, flat mouse.
I have had a bunch of people come to my desk very confused by how to hold this mouse, so here are a couple of pictures displaying how to hold it.
This first image is the view from the top left of the mouse. Your thumb rests in the relfective area.
And this image is from the top. Using this mouse sort of feels like you are lightly gripping a coffee mug.
The Keyboard ($269)
Buying a ergonomic keyboard was by far the best decision I have made for my wrists and forearms. What I once thought of as strange and difficult to use is now a necessity. The worst keyboard I have ever had the displeasure of using is Apple’s Macbook keyboard and Apple’s Wireless Keyboard. These keyboards share the same cramped style and caused the most pain and discomfort in my wrists and forearms. Feeling like I needed a radically different typing experience, I went with the Kinesis Advantage.
It took me a while before I had the courage to even buy this keyboard. It is not cheap and it looks unlike every keyboard I have used or seen. Do you really want to spend this much money on a keyboard that will leave you disoriented for several weeks? The short answer is a resounding yes. Typing was incredibly weird. For about a week I felt like I was just learning to use a keyboard for the first time. My hands could not keep up with my brain. But after a couple of weeks the benefits were clear. The pain in my wrists and forearms was practically gone. I was typing faster, too. This was back in July of 2012. It is now more than a year later of constant usage and I love it. So much so that I now own two of these keyboards. I will never go back to the standard keyboard if I can help it. Sometimes the dreaded Apple keyboard cannot be avoided. Traveling for example makes it difficult to avoid your laptops keyboard. I make sure I take frequent breaks if I am forced to use it.
The Chair ($200)
Given enough time my tailbone would be resting on the front my chair and I would be looking up at my monitor. Being conscious of your posture is difficult at first. Sitting correctly for hours is also difficult in a worn chair. A decent chair was the last thing I bought, but it is a necessary purchase if you will be sitting at your desk for a quarter of your day. Some desk chairs are upwards of $600, but to me those prices are ridiculous. That could be a month’s rent for some people. I am not living in my chair, but I did want to be comfortable while sitting in it.
I settled on a Tempur-Pedic TP9000. It has a memory foam cushion and a comfortable mesh back. My back is happy.
The Ergotron ($388)
The Ergotron WorkFit is a recent additon to my now ergonomic workstation. This device gives you the option to sit or stand. The monitor can be adjusted, too.
I think we all know by now that sitting all day is bad, so having the option to easily stand while working is great. Standing reminds me to stretch, move around, and take a break. All good things for those otherwise locked into a sedentary lifestyle. Please remember though that standing all day is not any better than sitting all day. Standing in uncomfortable shoes is even worse. It is recommended that you stand for no more than four straight hours and wear comfortable shoes while doing so.
An Investment In Yourself
Purchasing these things are definitely an investement in your programming career, but they are also in an investment in yourself. If you love what you do, you should care about how you do it, which means taking care of yourself. One thousand dollars is a small price to pay for a lifetime of living well while working on what you love. Even without the $100 discount on the chair, the total price of everything I listed is around $1100. My suggestion: save up some money and invest in good equipment.
Please know that this is just my experience. RSI is not something you want to dismiss. The use of better devices has helped me but it may not be the final solution for you. Always be sure to take breaks. You cannot expect your wrists and forearms to be constantly ready for work if you never give them a breather. And always seek professional help if you feel it is necessary.