Increased awareness of RSI over the past couple of decades has spawned a flood of so-called ergonomic devices that claim to reduce the risk of injury. Unfortunately, determining whether a product lives up to its claims is difficult without actually using it. Like gloves, keyboards and pointing devices are personal—one size doesn’t fit all. Before buying any device, make sure that you can return it after a trial period.
Switch your keyboard
To reach the keys on a conventional keyboard, you have to angle your hands outward and bend your wrists. But this position puts stress on nerves, muscles, and tendons. Ergonomic keyboards are designed to diminish these problems.
The simplest models, like Microsoft’s $100 Wireless Laser Desktop, turn the right and left sides of the keyboard outward so that your arms, wrists, and hands form a straight line as you type. Note, though, that since there’s no ideal angle for everyone, this keyboard may not work for everyone.
To help accommodate different body types, some ergonomic keyboards are split down the middle, allowing you to adjust the angle between the two halves. The $159 Kinesis Maxim goes one step further: not only can you adjust the angle between the two halves, but you can also tilt the center point of the keyboard upward like a tent so that your wrists and hands assume a more relaxed, vertical position.
If an angled or split keyboard doesn’t do the trick, the $497 DataHand Personal Edition lets you type without moving your hands. Each palm rests on a contoured pad while fingertips fit into receptacles equipped with small switches that you press to enter characters. To type the letter H, move your right index finger slightly to the left; enter an A by pressing down with your left pinkie. But remember: The more unconventional the keyboard, the greater your typing speed will suffer, at least initially.
Upgrade your mouse
As with keyboards, you must consider both the type and feel (or grip) of a mouse before you buy it. Clenching a mouse too tightly can strain your muscles, especially if the device is too small for your hand. Luckily, mice now come in a wide range of sizes, so you should be able to find one that fits your hand comfortably. Make sure that the mouse buttons don’t require too much or too little force, and that they provide a comfortable resting place for your fingers while you work.
Evoluent VerticalMouse 2
If conventional mice aren’t doing the trick, there are several unique ones available. Evoluent’s VerticalMouse 2 ( ) lets you hold your hand in a vertical position (think handshake), which is less stressful because it keeps your forearm from twisting. It comes in two versions: one for right-handed users ($75) and one for left-handers ($105).
If you have arm or shoulder symptoms, trackballs are a good choice since they demand less motion than mice. Models like Kensington’s $100 Expert Mouse feature a trackball at the top. Others, like Logitech’s $30 TrackMan Wheel, have a side-mounted ball that you roll with your thumb, so your hand hardly has to move. One nice bonus is that many trackballs (and mice) have programmable buttons. Customize them to perform common functions such as control-clicking, launching your browser, or even activating Automator workflows or QuicKeys sequences.
Try assistive technology
Special input devices designed for users with physical impairments are another alternative for RSI sufferers. If you find it difficult to click or type, you can perform clicks and key presses with your feet through P.I. Engineering’s $120 X-keys Foot Pedal. And Origin Instruments’ $995 HeadMouse Extreme allows you to control the cursor by moving your head.
The bottom line
Even if you think that the problem of computer-induced injuries is overblown, it makes sense to minimize your risk. Simple things, such as tweaking your workspace or investing in a more-comfortable input device, can go a long way. With your health and livelihood at stake, that’s good preventive medicine.
[ Dr. Franklin N. Tessler is a radiologist in Birmingham, Alabama. He writes about ergonomics regularly for Macworld.]