Mechanical Keyboards Won't Fix Your RSI

I’ve started a #mechanicalkeyboards channel on… at least three slack organizations? I’m a big fan of customizing your tools for your use, and it’s just a fun hobby.

Periodically, someone on a slack asks about mechanical keyboards and wrist pain. As I have foolishly persuaded or coerced lots of people to spend money on cool keyboards, my opinion may come as a surprise: by and large, cool keyboards won’t fix your RSI. Even though I have browser tabs up about cool new keyboards and layouts… it’s usually the last thing I would recommend.

Check your stance.

Cool keyboards honestly should be the last step in a campaign of better posture and ergonomics. Take a picture of yourself at your desk (or have someone else critically check your stance) and make sure that you aren’t sitting in a weird way. You’d be surprised how much a difference elbow position makes in wrist pain. Those tendons and sheaths are all connected. I think it’s pretty important to check yourself periodically… I’ve developed a habit to adjust every time I come to my desk. First thing in the morning, after a meeting… I’m always adjusting my desk height, monitor height, and keyboard distance.

It’s often something other than typing.

I can’t emphasize this enough: the stress often comes from another activity that you just notice while typing. Here are my normal triggers for RSI:

💥 Scrolling on touchscreens.

Infinite pool feeds on my phone are the most damaging thing to my hands. Holding the phone and moving my thumb to scroll is surprisingly damaging.

I’ll get worse symptoms after a long weekend of being lazy or especially a vacation where I use social media more than I should.

💥 Using laptop trackpads.

Another common trigger for me is editing photos on my phone or the trackpad on my laptop… that motion where I hold with my thumb and track with my fingers is apparently really bad.

💥 It could be your mouse.

Examine more than just typing.

I experienced some relief from RSI when I bought my first mechanical keyboard, a 60% poker without a numpad. I was elated.

It wasn’t the keyboard. It was the mouse moving closer.

Over time, I became aware that I had started using a dual monitor layout with a wide keyboard. That put my mouse far out to my right… and I discovered that I was tweaking my wrist dramatically when I was using the mouse. I theorize that subconciously, I was trying to point the mouse at the cursor on the screen. This was creating crazy strain on my wrist. Using a smaller keyboard allowed me to bring the mouse closer, reducing the strain.

The real answer: Bring the mouse in front of the keyboard at 12 o clock rather than 3 o clock. I also re-trained myself to stop caring that the mouse was pointed at the cursor… and that particular source of pain disappeared.

Strengthen and recover through exercise.

You can “warm up” and exercise those tendon sheaths and muscles using a guitar trainer, stress ball, or a dyna flex powerball. The last few times I’ve experienced pain symptoms, simply doing less on my phone and using these devices for five minutes before and after the work day helped tremendously.

Invest in typing correctly

I anecdotally have experienced better results learning to touch-type properly, no longer hammering my fingers into the bottom of the keyboard, but I honestly think there is not much to that.

I’ve also gotten some help from learning to use the opposite modifier than the key press. If you type A, you are supposed to use your RH shift for the LH keypress. I take that all the way to all of my modifiers, even for common shortcuts.

There are still times where you have a hand on the mouse and a hand on the keyboard… and that’s honestly where a custom keyboard or firmware can help reduce the weird finger-curling chords that can cause some RSI.

Finally, look at a split keyboard.

If all else fails, a keyboard can help. You aren’t going to get too much out of just buying a DAS keyboard or whatever… except the desk shakeup and readjustment of ergonomics that changing your tools can bring. You’ll get more switching to a split keyboard with columnar layout like the Ergodox, Kinesis Advantage, or similar boards.

Properly setting up my chair for my legs and back, desk height for my torso and arm length, and getting a monitor arm to set the monitor at a height for my neck and back… that’s been the best investment. If I were to do it again, I’d buy the monitor arm first.

I enjoy a cool keyboard, but if you are experiencing pain… look at the rest of your use of your wrists and fingers to see if there’s other activities that contribute. Commit to a small habit for exercise and rehabilitation for your wrists. Set up your desk for maximum ergonomics… then consider dropping money on a neat keyboard.