Ergo, Ouch: The Pain of Technology Designed Without People in Mind

GeekMom Technology
Image: public domain. Dürer – Die Hände des zwölfjährigen Christus – 1506

After years of typing, it came out of nowhere: an aching, stabbing, tingling pain in my arms and hands. My primary complaint was a throbbing ache followed by pinpricks of fiery pain on my fingers, like someone putting out cigarettes on my skin. I couldn’t work with my hands in any capacity, and I couldn’t sleep. Nothing seemed to work to alleviate the pain. Not ibuprofen, not acetaminophen, not painkillers. I had carpal tunnel.

My first doctor gave me “the look” when I told him I was a writer by trade, as if that was the root of all my troubles; since giving up writing wasn’t really an option, I underwent surgery, therapy, and ergonomic mindfulness. Once I started typing again at full force, though, it all started coming back. As it stands, I’ve got the odds stacked against me: I’m a woman, a writer, a guitarist, and I have a genetic predisposition to carpal tunnel, tendonitis, and arthritis. A perfect storm for pain.

It was a second doctor who suggested vitamin B6, which, I’m happy to report, makes daily life tolerable. They’re not exactly sure why B6 works in some carpal tunnel patients, but it’s made a huge difference for me. I’m extremely grateful on that count.

However, there are still some things I can no longer do (playing guitar, folding laundry, using a regular keyboard, reading heavy books, picking up my son, prolonged vegetable chopping). I get by, though not without some major readjusting. I’ve had to restructure my writing process, the way I play music, and even how I interact with my kids. I can’t tell you how heartbreaking it is to walk into a guitar store these days. After playing for eighteen years, I’ve had to give it up entirely or else spend three days in pain after jamming. It’s just not worth it.

I’m not alone in this, either. I’ve got quite a few family members and friends dealing with similar issues. In fact, as much as 5-10% of the world population suffers from RSI (repetitive strain injuries) or carpal tunnel and related musculoskeletal injuries, and that number is far higher for computer users (with various studies showing up to 30%). So it’s no surprise that companies are now turning a very serious eye toward prevention considering all the work-related injuries it’s caused (RSI-related injuries make up as much as 60% of occupational injuries). If you don’t suffer now, don’t hold your breath. Your risk factors go way up as you age.

Clearly it’s a growing problem, especially among computer-centric geeks. But I can’t help but wonder:  Did it have to be this way? Are we such slaves to our tech that we have to stand by and injure ourselves?

Listen, I’m a tech geek like the best of us. I love my MacBook, my iPhone, my Kindle. These are the gadgets that connect me to the outside world and help inspire me. I practically grew up on the Internet, clobbering away at the keyboard. But as I’ve learned, technology, in spite of its amazing advances, is hardly ever designed with human beings–and more specifically the human hand–in mind. And all that typing has taken its toll.

You’d think that companies like Apple, who are steeped in design principles, would step back and consider how the human body interacts with their technology, but that just isn’t the case. Though they have a cute section on their website about how to avoid issues of this sort, we all know there’s been some flaws in their aesthetically pleasing but ergonomically nasty devices (see the Magic Mouse and the sharp-edged MacBook, for instance).

Keyboards, for many sufferers of carpal tunnel, are at the heart of the pain. A traditional QWERTY keyboard forces your wrists and forearms to pronate (and is designed to prevent typewriter keys from getting stuck, which is no longer necessary for computers, but still persists). Essentially you twist your bones, muscles, and nerves in a very unnatural way, which can, over time, contribute to problems like RSI or carpal tunnel. For years my favorite keyboard was the aluminum Apple keyboard: sleek, silent, and sultry. But that thing proved to be a serious torture device for me.

So my choices now? Currently I use a Microsoft ergonomic keyboard when I’m at my desk and a Goldtouch portable keyboard when I’m traveling, and I’ve got to say, neither is spectacular. They’re both cheaply made and lacking in design elegance (the Microsoft keyboard is cheap but remarkably loud, while the Goldtouch doesn’t have an included number pad–it costs an additional $60–and doesn’t really balance as well on the laptop as purported). There are also alternatives like the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard, as well as some rather expensive otherworldly looking devices, but I haven’t yet gone to those extremes.

We know that sitting may already be killing us, and that knowledge has birthed standing desks and apps to remind us to get up and stretch (or else face horrible health consequences over time). But where is the outcry over the very devices with which we directly interface with our computers? I’ll tell you, I’ve tried a bevy of ergonomic solutions, from keyboards to mice to dictation software. Rarely is anything crafted with quality (including a mouse that was ergonomic except, well, in order to change the batteries you needed to do finger acrobatics — I mean, seriously people!). Sure, Dragon Dictate is decent. But unlike, say, a retiree who’s composing emails, I’m a mother of two composing novels. Finding alone time is hard enough, never mind enough time to sit in a quiet (quiet? That’s hilarious.) room long enough to put anything coherent down on paper. Not to mention, none of it is cheap.

Oh, but how about the iPad and the touch revolution, you ask? Funny thing. The iPad is fine for short periods of time, I find. But, like any tablet, it’s still pretty hefty. Not to mention the sleek sides make gripping difficult if not put in a thick cover. It’s fine on your lap or on a stand, but even so that’s only for a brief time. I’m not the first to notice this problem, for sure. Even my iPhone gives me grief after a while.

This is what it all boils down to: Technology, in spite of its leaps and bounds in recent years, is still in the Stone Age when it comes to design that compliments the human body. As machines get closer and closer to us, becoming a more intimate part of our lives, you’d think that wouldn’t be the case. But all this pretty design is at the risk of our health and wellness. I guess if it ever comes to the point where we’re all just directly plugged into the feed, it won’t matter.

It’s time that things change. Companies owe it to their customers to make more of an effort to make our day-to-day experiences as comfortable as possible; or else, like me, people won’t even be able to contemplate buying their products, ironically, because their products hurt them in the first place.

And it’s not just a gesture of good will. As the Baby Boomers age, they’re in need of tech molded to them, sure. But they’re less demanding. Just wait until more Generation Xers and Millennials break their bodies to keep up with the technological Joneses in their 40s and 50s; they’ll need intervention far earlier.

Or else we’ll need cyborg implants a lot sooner.

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1 thought on “Ergo, Ouch: The Pain of Technology Designed Without People in Mind

  1. Interesting post, I do slight RSI too, but a lot of time when to really that a product is hurting us, it is already too late for us to do anything. Sad but true.

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