Alleviating Hand Pain When Using a Computer

By Jane Vincent, Center for Accessible Technology

  1. See your doctor
  2. Take frequent breaks
  3. Keep your fingernails short
  4. Make sure you're sitting properly
  5. Try using forearm supports
  6. Explore alternative mice
  7. Explore alternatives to mouse clicking
  8. Try using adjustable keyboards
  9. Try using other types of alternative keyboards
  10. Don't touch the computer at all

1. See your doctor.

There are a variety of causes for hand pain, and the appropriate treatment will depend on the type you have. For example, some types of injuries are alleviated by wearing a hand brace, while others are made worse. Acupuncture and a healthy diet can also be successful ways to reduce pain.

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2. Take frequent breaks.

Most ergonomists recommend taking at least four typing breaks per hour: Three for thirty seconds and one for three minutes. During these breaks, close your eyes so that they get a break as well. If possible, structure your work so that typing tasks are interspersed with making phone calls, attending meetings, etc.

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3. Keep your fingernails short.

Long fingernails make it more difficult to maintain a good typing position (wrists straight, fingers pointed down and slightly curved), and may also interfere with mousing comfort.

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4. Make sure you're sitting properly.

Current ergonomic research suggests that leaning back slightly while typing can be more beneficial than sitting perfectly straight. While really good chairs tend to be expensive, less complex modifications to standard environments may also be effective. For example, filling a fanny pack with foam and strapping it around a chair can make a good lower back support. Foot rests can also contribute to proper positioning and typing comfort.

Be sure to speak to your departmental ergonomic contact for help in finding different ways to adjust your seating for best results.

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5. Try using forearm supports.

Many people report immediate pain relief from using adjustable Ergorest supports, which position the arms and hands automatically into proper typing position. Use of these supports assumes that your workstation has a lip so that the supports can be attached. More information and a photo are available from Infogrip. (If you have shoulder pain in addition to hand pain, be aware that the Ergorest may increase rather than relieve discomfort.) Note that using this type of adjustment does not mean you should continue without seeking other treatment or professional advice. Changing your position with something like this may only be a temporary fix and you should still find more permanent corrections.

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6. Explore alternative mice.

Built into every Windows and Mac operating system is a utility called MouseKeys, which allows you to use the number pad (on the right side of most keyboards) to move the cursor. If this isn’t a sufficient option, there are a wide range of alternative mice, including some that are hand-held, some that require little or no finger movement and some that allow the wrist to be held in a vertical position. Consult Ergonomics@Work for information about computer ergonomics (including mice and keyboards).

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7. Explore alternatives to mouse clicking.

Often our clients report that moving the mouse is not a problem, but clicking it brings on pain. Mouse click emulation software can help with this; it clicks once after the mouse is moved (the user can adjust how long it takes after the mouse stops moving for the click to occur), then pauses until the mouse is moved again. An interface allows users to select double-click, right click, and drag functions as well. Demo versions of Dragger32 for PC and ClickNoMo for Mac can be downloaded and previewed before the software is purchased.

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8. Try using adjustable keyboards.

Many people find that typing with their wrists held vertical is more comfortable than the traditional position with wrists parallel to the desktop. It can take a surprisingly short time for touch typists to get used to this position. Keyboards that can be adjusted to accommodate this position include Goldtouch and Kinesis Maxim.

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9. Try using other types of alternative keyboards.

Flexible keyboards require only a gentle touch to activate, and some people find it more comfortable than the standard keyboard. Beware, though, of buying keyboards simply because they are labeled "ergonomic"; there is no standard for approving use of this label, and what's genuinely ergonomic for a beefy football player may actually present more problems for a petite gymnast (and vice versa).

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10. Don't touch the computer at all.

The best voice recognition software, Dragon NaturallySpeaking, has improved significantly over the last few years. If it can be alternated with some keyboard and mouse use so the user can avoid vocal strain, so much the better. However, voice recognition is still not appropriate for all users or all situations, especially when the user does not have intelligible speech, the work environment is noisy, or the user will not have sufficient opportunities to get up to speed with using the program.

There are other options for hands-free computer use, including infrared technologies operated using head movement and systems that track eye movement. While these options are expensive and complex, they are available as solutions where neither hand nor speech use are possible.

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