Ideas for avoiding wrist pain at work

Stiff shoulders, wrist pain or cramped fingers from too much time at your computer? Here are some ideas I'm trying, to make work less painful.

We all know working at a keyboard all day isn't ideal. Even if you have a perfectly ergonomic desk setup, if you sat in the same position for 6 or 7 hours a day you're going to end up feeling stiff or sore.

And most of us don't have perfectly ergonomic setups. In all the offices I've worked in, the only people who make a fuss and get their desk and chair set up correctly are the people already suffering from back pain.

Those of us who work from home or cafes are just as bad. We use whatever furniture is available. And then we sit at it for hours. We relish the peace and productivity of working without interruptions- until we stand up and realise we can no longer move our shoulders!

My keyboard induced wrist pain got so bad last year that I've had to get physiotherapy to sort it out. Alongside the treatment, I've been experimenting with a few different ways to make my workspace a bit less painful.

This isn't intended as medical advice. If you're actually in pain, go and see your occupational health advisor, or a doctor. Don't leave it for ages, as I did. It really won't get better on its own.

Sit differently

First of all, get your workspace set up as best you can. This article from Lifehacker has some suggestions for arranging your desk, chair and keyboard. I've found when my wrist pain is really bad it's usually because my arms are too cramped up so changing how I sit always helps.

Then, think about ways to add some variety. No position is healthy if you keep it up for too long. For instance, if you usually work sitting down, is there somewhere you could stand up to work? When you're reading or reviewing, could you sit in a comfortable chair instead of at your desk?

Personally, I don't get on very well with either sitting or standing desks. I have lowered my monitor to a height where I can sit on my knees ‘seiza' style, or cross-legged, or kind of sideways kneeling with my feet to one side (I think this is called 'yokozuwari').

I use cushions like these for comfort, and to take pressure off my knees. Even with some padding, I can't sit still like this for very long, which is kind of the point! And I do find my back gets much less sore than when I use a chair all day.

Move around more

If you work in an office or cafe, you do get at least a little exercise as part of your commute - especially if you walk or cycle. But if you work from home as I do, you may find you can go the whole day without leaving the house.

I make sure to schedule exercise into my diary. I'm not good at going to the gym, but I like going for a walk around the park while I listen to podcasts. If it's raining, I do bodyweight workouts at home - I'm currently using Fitbit Coach, formerly Fitstar. So far as I can tell, there's still a free plan available from within the iOS/Android apps so you can try the service out.

I also do yoga - I'm currently enjoying Movement for Modern Life. There's a vast selection of styles and teachers, including sessions to reduce wrist pain and short routines you can do at your desk. Sign up with this link to get 50% off your first subscription.

And my top tip: when you plan a workout at home, get up and into your workout gear. You will feel really bad taking it off without doing any exercise!

Take regular breaks

I see lots of articles about how to focus more, or better. That's not a problem for me. You could set off fireworks in my home office, and I probably wouldn't notice. I wonder if I'm the only person using the Pomodoro technique because they focus too well?

This involves setting a timer, working for 20 minutes and then taking a short break. Every few sessions, take a more extended break. If like me, you tend to sit focused on a task without moving for hours at a time, this works just as well to make you take breaks.

Use a kitchen timer, your phone, or one of the many timer apps on the market. Personally, I find most timers too easy to ignore. I now use Breaktime, which actually locks my screen when it goes off.

Don't just sit there in your breaks. Use the time to stretch your sore wrists and stiff shoulders.

Save your wrist pain: talk instead of typing

Eventually, of course, we all need to sit down and get some work done. For me, that involves lots of writing. So I've been looking for ways to reduce the amount of typing involved. And that led me to try dictation.

If you use a Mac, you already have access to dictation services. I've tried this, and it does indeed work! Turn on enhanced dictation to get the best results.

Some other tips:

  • I don't use a separate microphone with my MacBook Pro. But if you're struggling to be heard, try a noise cancelling mic. Also check your input audio settings.
  • I talk a bit differently when I'm dictating - slightly slower and posher than usual. You need to speak clearly to get good results.
  • Don't fret over small mistakes. Its easier to dictate a rough draft and cleanup errors later.
  • You can edit and format with voice commands too, but I find it a bit tedious so I go back to the keyboard for editing.
  • It can be hard to think and talk at the same time if you're used to typing. Try scribbling an outline first. I also liked this article for lawyers on how to dictate well.
  • Dictation is perfect for transcribing handwritten notes.

Try handwriting recognition.

If you work in an office or other noisy places, dictation might not work so well for you. You might prefer to turn your handwritten notes directly into typed text. Of course, too much handwriting will also lead to wrist pain, but I find swapping between pen and keyboard really helps.

I've been trying Nebo by MyScript. I was blown away by how good this software is: It's more accurate than MacOS dictation, and it's easier to correct mistakes as you go. And yes, the first full draft of this article was written entirely in Nebo.

I find that I don't need to write differently to get reasonable results. I've included an example below so you can see Nebo in action - my handwriting's not all that neat, but the app can still read it okay!

Reduce wrist pain with handwriting recognition software - I used Nebo to write this article.

You do need an active stylus to use Nebo - an Apple Pencil, Surface pen, or S-Pen, depending on your device. But the ability to turn handwritten notes directly into text is possibly the best justification for buying a Pencil that I've ever come across!

Sketch and scan for pain-free graphics

You can also use your tablet to create graphics without keyboard or mouse. If I want a break from my laptop but I need to get a presentation done, I fire up PowerPoint on my iPad instead. If you have an Office 365 subscription, then you can get the tablet versions for free.

I also do a lot of photo editing and annotation on my iPad. It's especially useful for retouching. I use the built-in Photos app for annotations on screenshots. For fancier photo editing, the Photoshop Fix and Mix apps (both free) are excellent.

If I need to do a quick diagram to go in a presentation or document I often use Paper. Or I just draw what I want a printer paper and scan it with my phone. Adjust the document settings to turn your sketch black and white. This makes it easier to drop into PowerPoint later. The built-in scanners in Apple Notes and Evernote work well. Or try Scanbot.

Save keystrokes: learn to type better

I always need to go back to the keyboard eventually. But I try to minimise my time there by typing quickly and accurately.

If you're still a 'point and peck' typist, even on a full-size keyboard, I urge you to learn to touch type! It's not only faster - it's easier on your hands because you don't stab the keys so hard and you use all your fingers to spread the load. Before you start, make sure your desk and chair and keyboard are set up sensibly, or you'll just make your wrist pain - or stiff neck, or sore shoulders - even worse.

I learned the basics years ago using a DVD borrowed from work. I'm made up that Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing is still available, 20 years later!

However, there are more modern (and cheaper) options. I'm currently refreshing my technique using KeyKey typing tutor, available for a tenner on the App Store, or as part of a Setapp subscription.

What are your tips for avoiding neck, shoulder or wrist pain at work?

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