RSI: blame the keyboard

Ian Yates
14 April, 2008
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Back in the in 1980s one of the most popular illnesses doing the hypochondria wards was RSI or repetitive strain injury. Everyone who used a keyboard suddenly seemed to be a victim of this previously unheard of affliction. Those who played a lot of tennis knew about it, but the rest of us didn’t have much idea and most of us thought those who complained of it were probably prone to a bit of whinging and most likely also members of the regular sick-day club.

Most of us probably regard people who regularly say “oooh, my back hurts” as having a minor irritation they simply must share. The first time you do something that makes your back hurt you change your point of view. When your correspondent was stricken with RSI back in the mid-eighties, I was instantly reminded of the rapid way your opinion can be changed by a dose of reality. OK, so I was working as a software developer and churning out many lines of code for a big project so what had gone wrong?

After much investigation, the answer to my problem remained elusive, but I could no longer type code all day — heck I couldn’t even hold a toothbrush firmly enough to actually brush my teeth. My solution was take an offer of promotion to a managerial role in another company, which if course required less typing on a regular basis — or that was the plan. The new job was also engaged on a big project and the software development team were falling behind. There was no more budget to hire extra bodies, so, being a coder myself, I started pitching in to help things along.

After a few weeks two things happened — over dinner I told friends about my move into management which had made me a better paid code jockey, and at the same dinner one of my colleagues from the old place of work announced he had RSI. As these two pieces of information collided internally, I realised I was now typing almost as much as before but no longer complaining of RSI. My colleague told me his RSI was temporary, as he’d rapidly worked out that taking over my old job had meant he’d also inherited by brand new ergonomic keyboard. When the pain started, he dumped it and the pain stopped.

When I started typing again at my new job without my flash ergonomic keyboard my RSI hadn’t returned. A painful lesson but one with a happy ending — I got a better job, and my friend got a promotion. And we both learned about dodgy keyboards and their claims.

Now I told you that story, so I could tell you this story. A few months ago, my RSI returned, and since I now earn my living as a writer this was not good news. However, this time the RSI was in my left arm near the elbow, the classic “tennis elbow” location despite me still not being a tennis player, and anyway I’m right-handed.

Off I went again in search of the culprit. I got a nice new office chair better suited to typing. I got a posture thingy to help me sit more “correctly” at the keyboard. Nothing helped. Then some new keyboards arrived, for a review I was doing, and after some trials of the new toys the pain started to subside. No, surely, that can’t be right? I had been using the totally flat keyboard which came with my iMac. But it looks so stylish! How could it be the problem? Well, you may indeed wonder, but just like the last time I acquired a “better” keyboard it turned out to be worse than the one it replaced.

Anybody want to buy a used flat keyboard? I’m assuming the thing doesn’t give everyone RSI or it wouldn’t still be in Apple’s catalogue.

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