Wristy Business

Ways Computer Users Can Avoid Carpal Tunnel

 Q: Other than joining a Luddite commune where keyboards are forbidden, what can I do to avoid carpal tunnel syndrome? There are so many products out there that claim to protect your wrists, but I certainly can't sort them all out.

A question near and dear to Mr. Roboto's circuit-encrusted heart, for sure. Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), the upshot of too many ill-angled keystrokes, sends plenty of geeks, writers, and stenographers to the disabled list each year. Everyone's seemingly got an anti-CTS tip to share, from V-shaped keyboards to flambéed eye of newt, but there's no miracle device guaranteed to save your claws. Stick to a few best practices, however, and you should be able to keep typing until the reaper comes a-knocking.

A computer injury may sound like a borscht-belt punch line, but CTS hurts like the dickens. It starts with inflamed tendons and ligaments in the wrist, which pinch the nerve that controls sensation in the palm and fingers. Some sufferers liken it to having a migraine in their hands, albeit one that burns.

illustration: Minh Uong

For the cubicle-bound, the cause is usually dangerous typing habits. Are your wrists tilted at an angle exceeding 22 degrees? Fingertips above the knuckles? Hands jammed together, with pinkies flashing outward to hit the A's and question marks? These are all no-no's, though admittedly tough to correct if you've been keyboarding for a couple of decades. Perhaps the most important changes you can make are keeping your wrists straight and relaxing your hands. You ain't playing Rachmaninoff at Alice Tully Hall, either, so no need to over-pound the keys.

The good folks at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (osha.gov) say proper body alignment can help ward off CTS. See that "B" key? Make sure it's lined up with your belly button. Also, keep the keyboard low—a few inches above the lap is considered the ideal. And those little feet on the back of the keyboard? Resist the temptation to use them. If you must tilt your keys, do it the opposite way, so the numbers are lower than the space bar.

One quick fix many swear by is the split keyboard, whose curvy shape typically resembles a bear-claw pastry rather than the traditional rectangle. This allows the forearms to splay out in a more natural manner. A smaller number go in for tented keyboards, a fancier version that peaks up small portions of the board at 45-degree angles.

Those who've overcome CTS with such devices speak the world of them, but the scientific jury's still out. A 1997 Centers for Disease Control (cdc.gov) study concluded that "available research does not provide conclusive evidence that alternative keyboards reduce the risk of discomfort or injury." Two years later, however, a University of California-Berkeley researcher found that a Microsoft-made split keyboard reduced pain 50 percent in a small group of CTSers—provided they used it for 12 weeks straight. Mr. Roboto's no ergonomics guru, but has noticed that the ol' pincers feel less sore after using TypeMatrix's $99, split-style EZ-Reach (typematrix.com). Dig those big keys, though the centrally located backspace buttons take practice.

Another CTS pitfall is mice, especially those cheap ovoid ones that come with lowbrow PCs. An untethered mouse can help out, like Gyration's $80 Ultra Cordless (gyration.com). Canadian inventor Gene Hellmich sells a mouse-specific wrist guard called the Palm Rest (bongen.ca), which resembles one of those wraparound pillows airline travelers sometimes favor. Mr. Roboto's yet to try out a test unit, but the heatable pot-barley stuffing sounds promising.

The musical career of a close, personal Mr. Roboto pal was saved by a rarer anti-CTS stratagem: the Dvorak keyboard. See, the QWERTY design we're all used to was intended to prevent manual typewriter keys from jamming. It's also reputed to put excess strain on the weakest fingers, unlike August Dvorak's alternative scheme from 1936 (which can be glimpsed at thisistrue.com/dvorak.html). It's a tough transition, but if you've got enough processing power in the noggin, give it a go. Won't cost you a dime to try, at least—it's a Control Panel option in most recent versions of Windows and Mac OS. Or, if you're both handy and confident, just pop your keys with an emery board.


Input questions at bkoerner@villagevoice.com.

 
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