Cure for Typing Pain

Four years ago, I decided to resolve a problem that had been troubling me for years. The situation was that my wrists and fingers hurt almost all the time, and it was clearly due to computer use. I decided to do some real research with the intent to follow up by adopting a new scheme for interfacing with my computer. To facilitate coming up with solutions, I decided up front that there were no reasonable limits on what I might choose to do. I was willing to learn new programming keyboard skills, even to the point of learning to chord-type.

Searching for the Ergonomic Holy Grail

My solution constraints:

      • must be possible to use for the medium-term future.
      • must not be purely or primarily Windows based.
      • must be at least half as fast as qwerty keyboarding, preferably faster.
      • should be programmer-friendly

What I came up with:

      • retrain from qwerty to dvorak typing
      • vary posture
      • get a zero-force touchtyping keyboard with an integrated mouse

I knew it was going to be difficult to change my keyboarding habits. Moving from the QWERTY key layout to Dvorak is hard. You see, other than the numbers, only two letters stay on the same key. It is worth it, since moving all the keys around to more optimum positions pays off in speed and in comfort. With a QWERTY layout, one can only type about 10% of the words in the English language without leaving the home row. With Dvorak, the number moves to something like 70-80%. For example, the home row for the left hand has all the vowels, with only “Y” requiring any finger stretching, and that is with your strongest finger, the index. The right hand has “DHTNS”, which makes many word startings-and-endings immediately accesible.

Here are the steps I took to switch:

      • Bought Dvorak key labels for all three of the keyboards I used at the house
      • Remapped the key layouts on my Linux and Windows machines (which is very easy)
      • Found an online Dvorak typing exercise, and practiced it for an hour at a time, 3-4 days. Went cold turkey.

It took about two weeks of mental pain before it “clicked” and I regained any real ability to touch type. Until then, I would find myself with my fingers poised, frozen, while I tried in vain to remember which finger to move. I toughed it out by using the mental stick and carrot. The stick was that I really hate wrist pain and I honestly believed the ergonomics would help (even if only marginally) decrease my pain. It is my career, after all, and I want to be able to continue it without a slow ramp of pain. The carrot was that, quite unexpectedly, I really love the layout. I love efficiency and elegance. It is that and more. Almost addictive.

Switching Back

I kept using the Dvorak keyboard for two and a half years. Almost all my wrist pain went away in about six months. I can’t honestly say how much the Dvorak layout played a part in this wonderful change, since I changed a few other aspects of my approach to computer interaction at the same time. I can say without reservation that it was worth it, however. Changing layouts allowed me to relearn some other aspects of data input, which would had been difficult to address by themselves. A year and a half ago, I switched back to the QWERTY keyboard layout, primarily due to the hassle. Although I never fully lost my ability to type on standard keyboards, it was a mental switch that took a few minutes each time. I’m a senior programmer. I often need to type on other peoples’ computers. Using a Dvorak layout made me look fumbling and inept whenever I did so. Beyond the simple ego of it, I was surprised to find how integrated the standard layout is in non-PC usage. My Palm Treo phone had a qwerty layout. Powells books has a qwerty layout on their book search kiosk. The library used the standard layout as well. These sorts of problems, along with my needing to work with coworkers and their standard layouts, meant that I had to switch back and forth several times a day. I love the Dvorak layout, I think it is easier and less painful. But, the hassle wasn’t worth it for me in the end. The conclusion is positive, however. My wrists do not hurt any more. Paying close attention to keyboarding habits, especially including posture, has paid off in a permanent reduction of pain. Another payoff is a marked increase in typing speed, even after the permanent switch-back to QWERTY.

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