ergonomic keyboards

What Is An Ergonomic Keyboard: A Detailed Overview

Do you spend long hours typing away at your keyboard? Doing so puts extra pressure on your wrists and hands, causing the risk of injuries in the long run. The best way to avoid suffering and chronic pain is to use an ergonomic keyboard. Sure, it looks quite different than a standard keyboard but does wonder in helping you to avoid unnatural wrist and hand positions.

An ergonomic keyboard is designed to cradle the curvatures of your hands and wrists when you are typing. Instead of requiring the users to make adjustments, these keyboards fit them.

Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Model
Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Model (Source: Mack Male / Flickr)

What Is the Definition of Ergonomics?

The term has its root in the Greek language, two words in particular — ergon (work) and nomoi (natural laws), . In fact, it refers to the science of adjusting the design of various products to make them highly convenient and comfortable for uses.

Apple Adjustable Keyboard M1242
An adjustable keyboard from Apple (Source: Stephen Edmonds / Wikimedia Commons)

Depending on the products, making them ergonomics would involve engineering them according to human features such as height and proportion. This principle can apply to anything, such as specific products, sports, workspaces, and more, to improve the interaction of a user with a product or environment.

For example, an ergonomic seat like a chair or sofa should have a shape and features that take off the stresses of physical contours and body movements of the seated person. The aim of ergonomics is to make workspace and other environments safer by decreasing the risk of injury.

Different Types of Ergonomic Keyboards

An ergonomic keyboard has keys set in a V-shape for a two-handed user. The layout allows for typing at a small angle, which is more conforming to the human hand contours.

Ergonomic keyboards are available in a few different configurations, which differ in terms of a few tweaks, such as the placement of the “alt” and “ctrl” keys. You can break them down into two main categories:

  1. Unibody or single-piece models
  2. Split-chassis models

Unibody Ergonomic Keyboards

These one-piece units are somewhat similar but not identical to the traditional flat keyboards. With a slight curvy outline, these models limit the twisting of wrists and impact on the arms.

Unibody keyboards require almost no learning curve because of their similarities to the conventional units. They are also less expensive but still have some ergonomic issues. You may still need to stretch the arms to find a proper typing position.

Microsoft Unibody Keyboard
A Microsoft unibody keyboard (Source: Mliu92 / Wikimedia Commons)

Another version of this type is handheld keyboards that you need to hold like a game controller. No need to place it on a flat surface. You can hold it and move around. Some of them include a trackball mouse to give complete freedom to the users.

Some of these unibody models could have vertically aligned keys and others may offer various levels of elevation and rotation. There are keyless models too known as DataHand, which operates without finger extension and wrist’s motion.

Split-Chassis Keyboards

As the name suggests, each of these keyboards is split into two halves. You can adjust the angle and elevation of the parts for better positioning of your hands and fingers. With this keyboard, you don’t need to twirl the arms or bend your wrists. Also, no need to force or stretch your fingers to reach the keys.

Split-chassis keyboard
Split-chassis keyboard (Source: Doug McCaughan / Flickr)

A version of this type is known as angle-split keyboards that come with a raised middle part. Some models have the option to attach a free-standing keypad to prevent lateral wrist movement.

A split-chassis keyboard is great for people who are suffering from hand, wrist, or finger pain and numbness while typing. It will definitely give them some relief and prevent the deterioration of the condition.

What Does an Ergonomic Keyboard Do?

An ergonomic keyboard does what a standard keyboard cannot do, i.e., minimizing wrist, finger, and arm muscle discomfort, strain, pain, and several other related health issues.

Sitting hours on a chair and typing for most of the part takes a toll on the human body. The typing job really affects the shoulders, arms, wrists, and fingers — because of not only sitting for extended hours but also using conventional keyboards that require stretching and making uncomfortable posture adjustments.

Standard keyboards cause various health issues
Standard keyboards cause various health issues (Source: StockSnap / PixaBay)

When you use a flat, rectangular keyboard, you need to turn the wrists inward, causing pressure on the blood vessels and nerves of certain areas. Keeping the wrists in that unnatural position day after day causes RSIs (repetitive strain injuries) like Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.

An ergonomic keyboard prevents various alignment problems. It helps to cradle your natural physical contours.

These products are developed to adjust to the body contour of average-size people. Even if your body type is different from the average population, these keyboards have various adjustment features. Every computer user should have one since the standard keyboard is not at all good for your postures.

Do Ergonomic Keyboards Really Help?

Yes, they do.

Different studies suggest that the use of an ergonomic keyboard reduces postural stress, muscle strain, and increases productivity. In fact, being able to keep the right postures while typing will save you from the risk of several types of RSIs.

In other words, ergonomic keyboards allow hands to be in their natural position. If you pay attention, you will understand that typing on a standard keyboard forces the user to make several unnatural movements.

What happens when you type on a standard keyboard? You need to:

  • Twist the arms to keep them aligned to the keyboard
  • Overextend the fingers to reach some keys (if the keyboard is too wide)
  • Bend the wrists up when lying them on the desk to reach the keys
  • Flex back and shoulder muscles unnaturally when typing
Typing on a standard keyboard
Typing on a standard keyboard is bad for your hands (Source: Pikist)

Ergonomic keyboards bring some design changes to minimize or eliminate these unnatural movements. How do they do that?

Rotating the keys

Most of these units have letter keys in two halves, positioning them at the lower/bottom corners. This design change allows your arms to be in a more natural posture at the time of typing. In the case of a split keyboard, you can place the two halves at a distance according to your convenience.

Adjusting the elevation

Ergonomic keyboards have the option to readjust their height, so you can tent up the unit to elevate the center part. It creates an angled position that reduces the amount of wrist-twisting.

Varying key depths

Besides repositioning the elevation and rotating the keys, some ergonomic models set up the keys at various heights to cater to the different lengths of human fingers. Some models not only change the depths but also rearrange the keys.

Some models have various key depths
Some models have various key depths (Source: Erin Sparling / Flickr)

Having a wrist resting pad

A wrist pad provides support and a resting place for the wrists and forearms during typing. It helps to stay comfortable when you need to work for an extended period.

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health has recommended ergonomic keyboards for improving the hand postures and limiting the complications of repetitive stress injuries.

What Is the Difference Between a Standard Keyboard and an Ergonomic Keyboard?

The basic difference lies in their design. Ergonomic units feature several design tweaks to keep the typist’s hands in a natural position. To do that, they vary from traditional keyboards in the following ways:

Correcting wrist and elbow postures

Typing on a standard keyboard sets up your wrists and elbows in opposite directions. The wrists stay angled out to be parallel with the keys while the elbows stay angled in. Ergonomic units try to correct this harmful posture by splitting keys, elevation, and separating key rows.

Also, some ergo units have a padded extension at the front where you can rest the palms during a break. Doing so slows down the onset of repetitive stress injuries.

Preventing pronation

Inward wrist-twisting or pronation, which happens when you lay down the hands on a flat surface with the palms down, causing pain and numbness to the muscles. Ergonomic keyboards solve this problem by having options for adjusting the elevation of the middle part.

Raised Center Keyboard
No pronation because of the raised adjustable center (Source: Mliu92 / Wikimedia Commons)

Allowing easier typing

All users of conventional keyboards know how much effort it takes to press the keys. In order to make a successful stroke, you sometimes need to press the letter button all the way to the full depth. The process of creating such extra pressure sends little shocks to your fingers causing severe pain in the long run.

Ergo keyboards have solved this issue by adding low-force keys. There is no need to put pressure on the keys to register a keystroke.

The more expensive top-tier models use something better — mechanical key switches. These switches have a longer lifespan than membrane switches and make typing a really smooth experience.

Different key layout

Ergo keyboards feature a different key layout than their traditional counterparts. It may require some time to get the hang of this outline but it makes typing faster and easier. Some models tweak the key structure of the standard typewriter to make typing more efficient. While it works for the ergonomic purpose, it may impede the user’s ability to achieve the same level of proficiency on other keyboard types.

Should a Keyboard be Flat or Raised?

While it depends on personal preference, the whole point of ergo keyboards is to avoid the risks of health issues that using standard keyboards cause. Your wrists are not flat, so it’s not a good thing when you force them in a flat posture for typing on a flat keyboard.

Also, the keyboard height affects the elbow condition too. Its elevation should be at a point that allows the elbows to be at a 90-degree angle and close to your body. A flat keyboard does not allow that.

Flat Keyboard
A flat design affects the elbows (Source: PikRepo)

Everything in the human body is connected to each other. Poor postures of the wrists and elbow can affect the whole forearms. And, that pain from the forearms can slowly spread to the upper arms, upper body, neck, and facial muscles. This may sound like a stretch, but this is the truth.

If you are hunched over a flat keyboard all day and every day, you are likely to face so many physical problems. So, it makes sense to use a raised keyboard or one with adjustable tilt. It’s better to experiment with various tilt angles to see what suits you the most.

How Do I Make My Keyboard Ergonomic?

If you don’t have an ergonomic keyboard, you can still apply some tricks to make the standard one ergonomic. It won’t give you full protection but there will be some guaranteed pain relief and slowing down RSIs.

To make your keyboard ergonomic, make the following adjustments:

Use a keyboard tray

If you don’t have a keyboard tray, purchase it immediately. A tray helps with maintaining a proper ergonomic setup in your workstation. A highly adjustable tray is always preferable because it allows you to tilt in any way you find convenient.

Keyboard Tray
Keyboard tray (Source: Fructibus / Wikimedia Commons)

Look for a height-adjustable tray with a mouse slot, so you can use both keyboard and mouse by keeping your upper arms relaxed and close to the body.

Keep the keyboard at an open angle with arms

When you sit on a chair, the ideal height of the keyboard should be just above your lap. The arms should lean downward, so they make an open angle with the keyboard. To be clear, you need to position it at about your elbow height. It will allow the shoulders to stay in a relaxed position.

Many people don’t keep the keyboard at that height, which is a mistake. If there is no way to tilt the keyboard or the tray to that position, fix the problem by adjusting the chair and desk height.

Tilt the keyboard down

Using a tray means placing the keyboard at a height lower than the desk surface. In that case, create a negative tilt by slanting the keyboard a bit. Make sure that the top row of keys is lower than the bottom row of keys, so your wrists stay in a neutral and natural position.

Keep the keyboard and mouse at the same height

Placing them on two different surfaces requires you to move your right/left hand up and down constantly. This is not good for your physical health. Such repetitive movements put unnecessary pressure on the muscles, tendons, and ligaments. As a result, you are exposed to the risk of musculoskeletal injury.

Keyboard ergonomic
A little elevation is important (Source: Free-Photos / PixaBay)

Determine the correct distance

It’s necessary to place the keyboard at a distance so you don’t need to stretch to reach it or any of the keys. The ideal distance is keeping it approximately 5 cm from the edge of the desk, so there is still some surface left to support the wrists. The mouse should also be at the same distance.

Use a split keyboard if you have broad shoulders

People with a broad shoulder may find it uncomfortable to use a standard keyboard because of its width. To conform to their body shape and the distance between hands, a split keyboard seems to be the best choice.

Finding the correct height, angle, and distance of the keyboard and setting it up accordingly means you can type without putting any pressure on your hands, arms, wrists, and fingers. Rearrange the keyboard’s position if you still feel any discomfort.

Advantages and Disadvantages of an Ergonomic Keyboard

Of course, ergo keyboards can’t solve all posture-related problems or are not without their issues. Like all types of accessories and devices, they have their unique pros and cons.

Advantages of Ergonomic Keyboards

Give relief to wrists and hands. These body parts suffer much when you need to sit for hours in front of a computer and type constantly. An ergo keyboard gives relief to pain and numbness in these areas.

Actively prevent repetitive stress injuries (RSIs). These injuries occur when you make the same motion in a bad posture over and over. But ergo keyboards can eliminate or at least slow down the injuries by allowing the users to type with natural postures and movements.

Minimalist design. If you like a minimalist style, an ergo keyboard on your desk seems to be the right choice. Many of them are smaller and more compact than standard units.

Minimalist Design of Ergonomic Keyboard
Many ergonomic units have a minimalist design (Source: Mack Male / Flickr)

Disadvantages of Ergonomic Keyboards

Require a learning curve. Switching from a traditional keyboard to the ergonomic style is a big leap and you need to spend some time getting used to it. Adjusting your muscle memory may need several weeks. Many people start with the “hunt and peck” style, but that also requires a learning period if it’s a split keyboard.

More expensive. It makes sense since ergonomic keyboards have many features that you won’t find in the average office-focused models. However, those extra bucks will be worthwhile if you spend several hours a day typing.

Not quite available. The demand for ergo units is relatively lower than the traditional ones. Many offices and workstations still rely on standard models. So, you may not find it in your local electronics store. However, big retail stores and online electronics shops are likely to have them in stock.

Eli Civil

A software engineer, entrepreneur, and keyboards enthusiast. I spend my time click-clacking on keyboards. About Eli Civil

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