Keyboards and Repetitive Stress Injury — An Experiment

For at least two years now, I’ve been suffering off-and-on with pain in my arm when typing. This pain seems to be related to my neck, and when I apply a heating pad to my neck and take Varlerian root (an herbal relaxer I found years ago to deal with my low back problems), it usually gets better, but it doesn’t go away until I can pop my neck. In fact, once my neck pops, I feel relief go all the way down my arm and I can usually go the rest of the day without significant pain. I’ve assumed this was all caused by a car wreck I had in ’08 where my neck was stretched and the liniments in my neck were strained. Now, I’m rethinking the idea that the cause is in my neck.

Let me start a the beginning and work my way forward.

Years ago, I thought I had carpel tunnel and my psychical therapist showed me A) that it wasn’t carpel tunnel and B) how to alleviate that pain. Even after the pain subsided, I decided to use ergonomic keyboards from that point forward. I got a Microsoft Ergonomic Media keyboard with hotkeys for Windows 98/XP and wrote four novels with it (all unpublished, I wasn’t a great writer). By that time, many of the keycaps were worn smooth and the spacebar actually had a grove on it from my thumb hitting it so much. Then, sometime after novel attempt #4, the cord shorted out and I couldn’t buy a direct replacement, as Microsoft had discontinued that particular generation of product.

Over the years, I’ve amassed quite the keyboard collection trying to find something as comfortable as that old Microsoft keyboard. At my computer desk right now, I have two Microsoft ergonomic keyboards and a Goldtouch split-key keyboard for Mac I bought off eBay. The Goldtouch has a lever on the side and a ball-and-socket mechanism that allows the user to set the desired amount of split and slant on the keyboard, so it’s a fairly customized experience.

A couple of weeks ago, I bought a Renaissance Learning Neo2 because I wanted something portable that I could pick up, take wherever, and start writing without the battery drama or backlit screen of a laptop. I envisioned trips to Starbucks (an hour away for me, oh my) and lounging outside on warm days with it. Still, I didn’t expect to get whole lot of writing done on it because it’s not an ergonomic keyboard. It would get me out of the house, but that’s about all I expected. I figured I might get 5–10 pages written in a session because of the different environment, but that — as has become my normal — discomfort would take over and I’d stop writing.

The first thing I noticed about the Neo2 is how well I could type on it. In fact, I think it may be the best keyboarding experience I’ve had in years. Twenty or thirty minutes flew by without significant discomfort. The keyboard isn’t fancy. It mimics a first-generation MacBook Pro keyboard, but without the backlighting. It has a very pillowy feel — soft keystrokes and fairly significant travel. I don’t notice my fingers bottoming out when I type, something I’ve always felt when typing on every other keyboard I’ve had in the past two decades.

Well, except for one keyboard… an old IBM model M clone that I unceremoniously tossed into a dumpster because it had a proprietary connection that only worked on the yard-sale acquired 1980s-era IBM clone that it came with. I toyed with writing on the old computer, but the total lack of ability to get anything off the computer except by 5 1/2" floppy disc made the exercise futile. Back when I tossed the machine, it never crossed my mind to look for adapters or that the keyboard would be something worth refurbishing. At any rate, I never experimented with it enough to decide if I liked it well enough to write on or not.

My experience with the Neo2 started me down a rabbit trail of research. This is what I’ve learned:

Most modern keyboards use what’s called a rubber dome switch. If you’ve ever taken a keyboard apart or damaged a keyboard enough that keys came off it, you’ve seen these switches. They are, essentially, rubber domes over a circuit board that register keystrokes when depressed. What this means is that the key has to bottom out in order to register. There are many different spring mechanisms that give each keyboard a unique feel and to soften the impact of the key against the dome, but none of those mechanisms change the fact that the key must bottom out in order to register.

Older keyboards, particularly from the early days of computing, used mechanical switches. Most of these switches register keystrokes before the key bottoms out, usually around half-way through a keystroke. Because the keys register half-way through, there’s not a shock from the key impacting the dome. No shock means the fingers can press and release naturally, without a stopping point. For our fingers, it’s the difference between punching a padded heavy-bag and punching a concrete wall.

Could it be that the pain I’ve been experiencing has nothing to do with the shape of the keyboard, but rather the “bottoming out” of the keys? Could it be that this years-long pain I’ve wrestled with is because of the shock of the keys bottoming out under my fingers? And that this shock was traveling up to my neck from my fingers, not down to my arm from my neck?

A few weeks ago, I would have scoffed at the idea, but after using my Neo2, I’m starting to think it’s true.

To test my theory about bottoming-out keys, I’ve got a gently-used, Made-in-America, Unicomp SpaceSaver M keyboard for Mac on its way. This is essentially the same keyboard as the old IBM model M keyboards from the ’80s, but in a slightly smaller form-factor (in this case, SpaceSaver doesn’t mean tenkeyless, as one might assume — it means a revised form factor for the full-size 104-key IBM key set popularized in the ’90s, with some keys reassigned for modern Macs). Except for their “Quiet Touch” line, Unicomp, Inc.​ keyboards use what’s called a “buckling spring” mechanism to register keystrokes. What this means is, as the key is depressed, a spring underneath the key both depresses (goes down) and buckles (bends in the middle) to produce tactile feedback and create a CLICK sound as the key is pressed. Most people seem to love these keyboards because of the click, but I’m wondering if the key travel itself will help alleviate my pain and help me write for longer periods of time without pain.

Remember how I said *most* modern keyboards use dome switches? That’s because a few companies — like Unicomp — still make mechanical switch keyboards. Yes, they’re pricy. They typically cost $100 or more. Most people probably don’t need one. Many people who suffer repetitive strain injuries swear that the newer-style chicklet keyboards are easier and less-stress inducing to type on. However, for my arm and my neck, the chuckle keyboards on my various MacBook Pros have not been pleasant to type on.

If the used SpaceSaver M keyboard works for me, I’ll be ordering the upcoming tenkeyless version directly from Unicomp and, hopefully, picking it up in Lexington. I love Lexington, it’s such a beautiful city and I’m happy to support its industry. In fact, I’d love to live there again. As far as I can tell, Unicomp is the last company still making keyboards in America. Even though they may not be perfect, this is a company I want to support.

Unicomp is not the only company making old-style keyboards, though. Matais is a keyboard company based in Canada that has re-invented the old ALPS-made mechanical switches used by Apple in the ’80s for the Apple Extended keyboard and the Apple Extended II keyboard. Matais, unlike Unicmop, offers a range of products with these mechanical switches — full-size, tenkeyless, bluetooth, and even ergonomic split-key designs. Other companies, such as Das Keyboard and Leopold, offer keyboards with Cherry MX switches, which are considered state-of-the-art for modern mechanical keyboards. Researching keyboards can be a time-consuming process, and much of it is because the quality of the keyboard depends on the quality of the switch. Each of Cherry’s MX switches falls under a color code and both the performance and response of these switches varies from color to color.

That said, I like the idea that Unicomp continues to use the same technology IBM made famous in the 1980s and I think, for me, that’s a good starting place.

To prepare for typing on a non-ergonomic keyboard again, I’ve configured my Goldtouch as a regular keyboard with no split and no tent-angle. Of all my current keyboards, the Goldtouch has the softest keystroke (aside from the Neo2). After typing al this out, I’m typing relatively pain-free with only one neck-pop required to finish. I know I should probably be doing something more productive, like working on a novel or a screenplay, but I’m still trying to figure out what’s going on. However, I think repetitive-stress injury is important enough to discuss.

Have any of you experienced pain from typing, either wrist pain or arm pain? What is that pain like? What steps have you been able to take to alleviate it? Have you found a keyboard that alleviates your pain levels? Do you prefer the laptop chuckle keys or have you found something like a Cherry MX brown keyboard is perfect for you? I’m very curious, because keyboard experimentation has become quite the expensive hobby.

My GoldTouch Keyboard configured in “Boring Mode”.
Like what you read? Give William G. Jones a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.