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dot life Monday, 25 June, 2001, 09:28 GMT 10:28 UK
Change your life, not your keyboard
Hand massage
Massage can help people recover
Doubts surround the benefits of ergonomic keyboards in preventing repetitive strain injuries at work, writes BBC News Online's technology correspondent Mark Ward.

Work is bad for you, for all kinds of reasons.

Ergonomic keyboard
Curvy keyboards offer few benefits
It forces you to meet its schedule, separates you from your loved ones too long and too often, and can inflict all manner of indignities, not least of which are the range of ailments classed as repetitive strain disorders.

Recent studies show that almost 40% of workers in the Netherlands reported pain in their upper-neck and limbs that they attributed to conditions in their workplace; and 17% of British workers report similar problems.

Doing something about RSI, or work-related upper-limb disorders, could also save money. Estimates of how much these disorders cost economies range from 0.5% to 2% of GNP. In the UK, the Health and Safety Executive estimates that these disorders cost more than 1.25bn a year.

Savage syndrome

The problem with these estimates is that experts find it hard to agree on just what is covered by the term "upper-limb disorder".

It is a term covering a wide range of inflammatory and degenerative maladies and disorders including tendinitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, De Quervain's disease, digital neuritis, myalgia, Raynaud's syndrome and bursitis.

A cat typing and using a computer mouse
Cats can use mice too
In total, 21 disorders or conditions fall under the definition. The situation is further complicated by the fact that it often proves impossible to identify which particular condition a person is suffering from.

But if technology got us into this mess - perhaps by making us use keyboards all day - then it can help, surely?

Well, maybe not.

There are many different types of supposedly "ergonomic" keyboards that reduce the risk of suffering a WRULD and make it easier to type and interact with your computer.

Some are split in half to make it easier to reach the keys, others place the keys on shaped panels so your fingers can touch them more readily, and others simply re-arrange the letters.

Still others install a soft bar between you and the keyboard to ensure your wrist stays straight while you type.

It is even possible to buy software that reminds you to take regular breaks and gives on-screen examples of the exercises you can do to stretch and protect against carpal tunnel syndrome.

Keyboard conundrum

But as ergonomists admit, there is no hard evidence that these keyboards help at all for the very simple reason that keyboards are now being seen as only one among many causes of these disorders.

Reaching for the mouse
Careful when you reach for that mouse!
So simply changing a keyboard is not going to solve the whole problem.

Professor Peter Buckle of the Robens Centre for Health Ergonomics at the University of Surrey, UK, the author of a definitive report on these health problems for the EU, says there has been little research on which keyboards are most effective.

"Ergonomic keyboards overcome some of the problems but not all of them."

If the keyboard effects a change in posture, this can lessen the risk that someone will go on to develop an upper-limb disorder. But it won't remove the risk entirely.

"Most [ergonomic keyboards] were invented by one person whom it suits, but they don't suit everyone," he adds.

Game on

In fact, he says, changing your keyboard can make your disorder worse because it forces you to change your working habits.

Computer game heroine Lara Croft
Tough job, but someone's got to do it
The change will more than likely stunt your productivity and boost stress levels. Stress and the social and psychological atmosphere of the place you work are the key causes of limb disorders.

Forcing people to work to tight deadlines, making them do more than they are capable of, and giving them little support probably play a far greater role in causing these disorders.

As evidence for this, Professor Buckle says keen computer game players pound on keyboards and joysticks for hours on end, but seem to suffer few injuries as a result. Only when someone else is cracking the whip do workers start to be at risk.

But a more important question, he says, is why we have created a society that requires so many people to sit in front of a computer screen all day? And that is something that will take more than a different keyboard to cure.

Weely guide to getting buttoned up

See also:

15 Sep 00 | Health
10 May 00 | Science/Nature
26 Nov 00 | Health
20 Dec 00 | Health
30 Jul 98 | UK
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