You may have come across a weird, fancy-designed keyboard at some point of your life, labeled as “ergonomic keyboard”. “Ergonomics” is defined as the laws of work, and it is characterized by the interaction between humans and the system they work in, which means that for any tool or equipment to be ergonomic, it should cater to the needs and capacities of the user, rather than the latter having to adapt to its design or process.
Following this definition, it is easy to recognize an ergonomic chair, given how most of its parts can be adjusted to fit the user’s body dimensions. But what about ergonomically labeled keyboards? Is their fancy design actually ergonomic? Can these single-sized keyboards fit all users and their requirements?
Why should you buy an ergonomic keyboard? the theory
Biomechanics is the science of internal forces of the human body interacting with the external forces of the environment. This science includes the science of joint motion, and according to it, most adult humans can rotate their hand inwards around 70 degrees. To simplify, if you position your hands parallel to each other on a flat surface with your elbows bent 90 degrees, you probably won’t be able to make them touch the surface fully, at least not comfortably. This limited range of motion is natural and caused by your forearm bones overlapping on top of each other and not being able to rotate further.
When typing on a flat, regular keyboard, you face the dilemma of having to rotate your hands fully inwards to be able to stroke the buttons, but not being able to do so given your body’s capacity, which -theoretically- causes higher levels of strain on your wrist and may create discomfort, wrist pain, and potentially wrist injuries.
This is where ergonomic keyboards come into play. Ergonomic keyboards are designed to allow for the natural range of motion of your wrists, which is why they are curved and in higher-end models, elevated from the middle. This positioning allows you to stroke the buttons more comfortably and without having to continually push your wrist inward into an uncomfortable position. The logic behind ergonomic keyboard is biologically and biomechanically plausible, but the evidence and practice say otherwise.
Why you shouldn’t buy an ergonomic keyboard? The evidence and practice
Despite it being logically sound, ergonomic keyboards can easily fail to rise up to the expectations. This shortcoming can be attributed to:
Lack of scientific evidence
Like most health and fitness tools, ergonomic keyboards weren’t heavily researched until they became a popular and household tool. Practically speaking this is normal, as it is difficult to fund a study over a tool that is yet to be sold. However, in an ideal world, any tool or equipment should be scrutinized by scientific studies before it hits the market, to ensure that it provides value add, or should be kept as a prototype.
Among the studies conducted on the efficacy and value of ergonomic keyboards, one study showed that they do not necessarily reduce pain in the wrist, hand, neck, or back compared to regular keyboards over a period of five months.
A systematic review of scientific studies also showed that purchasing an ergonomic keyboard on its own is not an effective strategy or solution, which is explained in the second reason why ergonomic keyboards may not always fulfill their task.
A tool is used to assist, not to take charge
A tool is exactly that: a device or implement used to carry a function. It is never in charge, and should never be treated as a primary intervention. This is problematic when it comes to ergonomic tools and equipment: they make us believe that they will solve the root issue, but they never do. A scientific review on carpal tunnel syndrome, the most prevalent wrist disorder, showed that the highest improvement in wrist pain was when an ergonomic keyboard was combined with active ergonomic strategies, such as exercise, better work habits, and taking movement breaks.
One consistent fear when investing in ergonomic equipment is the false sense of security of being immune to musculoskeletal disorders, which pushes us to neglect movement breaks and active work habits, deeming these tools counterproductive.
Lack of practicality
One of the more common complaints about ergonomic keyboard is the time people spend to become comfortable and efficient while using them. The dilemma surrounding ergonomic keyboards is that if there is anyone who can benefit from using them, it’s those who spend prolonged periods typing; the same people who can’t afford reducing their typing efficiency and speed for the sake of an oddly designed keyboard that may or may not work. The time that it takes to get used to an ergonomic keyboard and restore the same efficiency as a regular keyboard can take around 4 months, which is not short and can become very frustrating.
Who should use an ergonomic keyboard?
When presented all the above evidence and current knowledge about ergonomic keyboards, it is hard to recommend them as an intervention to anyone. However, it is never a wrong idea to try one out if you can afford them. One relatively affordable keyboard is the Microsoft Sculpt ergonomic keyboard which comes with a mouse and separate number pad. We have tested this product ourselves and in the worst case scenario if the keyboard was uncomfortable, you can still benefit from the mouse and number pad. Compared to other keyboards, this option is relatively affordable and easy to use.
It is important to restate that any tool or equipment cannot resolve musculoskeletal pain on its own. It is imperative to educate yourself on ergonomic work habits and learn the inclusive strategy on how to prevent and avoid work-related injuries while improving your productivity. If you are currently struggling with work-related pain, you can book a free consultation session on our website.