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A Writer (Me) Learns to Type All Over Again

And an expert gives 12 tips to save your shoulders, arms and back

By Suzanne Gerber

In my late 30s, I suffered such intractable back and shoulder pain that a regimen of massage, chiropractic and acupuncture didn’t do much lasting good. Even smart exercise, with a lot of proper stretching, wasn’t helpful. So I decided to cross what I considered the final frontier: I saw a Rolfer.  
Though I’ve experienced almost every kind of “alternative” healing modality, Rolfing (also called Structural Integration) was the one place I would not go. “Hurts like a mother” was the general consensus. But when a friend reported “amazing” results with a local Rolfer, I figured that whatever discomfort he wrought couldn’t be worse than what I was feeling anyway.
We didn’t do the traditional 10 Rolfing sessions. My guy was a maverick before Whatshername hijacked the word, and he was also a brilliant healer. In conjunction with bone-crushing, um, sensation (as our yogi friends call pain) — the result of very deep hands-on manipulation — he taught me a lot about bodies, mine in particular. And the biggest lesson I learned, at age 40, was how to walk.
I mean that literally. Apparently almost everything that almost all of us do when we walk is wrong: Our posture is off, we sashay laterally, our gait is a mess. And — being overly reductive here — it all starts with the feet. That’s why, as part of every session, I practiced walking, until the day my body finally got it. (He also taught me how to sit, stand, bend and move. It was an invaluable experience.)
So it really shouldn’t have surprised me to learn, when I had an ergonomic evaluation last week, that everything about how I type was wrong. Dead wrong.

(MORE: Wrist Pain, Prevention Is the Best Cure)

An Ergonomic Evaluation
Deborah Quilter, an ergonomics and movement expert, teacher and contributor to Next Avenue, came to check out my home workstation and my typing technique. When she arrives, I am working on my Macbook at my dining room table. Her first words — after a warm greeting, of course — are, and I quote: “Your table is too high for your hands, and the laptop screen is too low for your eyes. I hate to say this, but laptops are always wrong. They’re poorly designed. But there's a fix for that."
You-know-who rolls over in his grave.
From there we go downstairs to my real workstation, a newish setup of which I am rather proud. (Or was, until Quilter showed up.) “Type the way you usually do,” she instructs, and I do as she videotapes me. “I would’ve gotten a manicure, had I known,” I say, and unconsciously sit up straighter.
As she records, she asks questions: “Do you wear glasses when you type? Do you do touch-typing? Do you wear a headset when you’re on the phone?” (No, yes, no.)
Let’s Go to the Videotape
Together we review my typing technique. Looks pretty good to me—and fast! Quilter takes a 14-page worksheet entitled "Worksite Evaluation and Technique Analysis," which she has created based on 20-plus years of researching, evaluating, studying and interviewing medical professions. (Her Repetitive Strain Injury Recovery Book is considered the bible on the subject.)
“Just when I think I’ve seen every possible permutation of typing technique,” she begins, and what comes next isn’t a compliment. “Look what you do: You rest your left forearm on the desk and hover the right one over it. I have never seen that before.
“Your mouse is too far away,” she continues, “and too high. Ditto your keyboard. Feel what it’s doing to your shoulders.” She proceeds to drop my keyboard and mouse to lap height. “Draw in your elbows and try it now.” The difference is incredible. Instead of my shoulders being scrunched up (sound familiar?), they fall into a much more natural — and comfortable — position.

“This is the ideal, neutral placement,” Quilter explains. “Even a slight elevation of the shoulders is exhausting, dangerous and can lead to a cascade of injuries.”
As for the typing skills I mastered in high school and have relied on for a living ever since, not so good. Here’s a partial list of my sins: I’m a clacker, a pinky pointer, a co-contractor — and a real deviant when it comes to my ulna.
Translation: I pound the keys, extend my little finger and break my wrist to reach the most commonly hit “function” keys (in fact, I do this with all my fingers). What I should do, Quilter says, is curve my fingers and move the whole hand to hit non–home keys.
“So basically, I have to learn to type all over again?”
“I’ll be honest,” she says. “It’s a gradual process that begins today. Progress will be slow — and a little expensive. We can prioritize this, but I’d recommend a better chair, a new ergonomic keyboard and a keyboard tray. You should also have a headset for when you’re on the phone. And a "sit-stand" desk and a programmable foot switch — to take away some typing burden — would be nice, but they aren’t necessary.” (The one freebie was putting a two-inch cookbook under my large monitor to bring the center of the screen closer to eye height.)
Quilter leaves me with some specific recommendations (she doesn’t sell these products, by the way, and she tries to find clients the best values; she’s a good witch) as well as a few instructional pages from the worksheet, to remind me of general good typing practices.


(MORE: Voice-Recognition Technology Comes of Age)
12 Rules for Good Keyboard Technique
Deborah Quilter compiled this list, which is good advice for everyone who types.

  1. Never rest wrists while typing.
  2. Use the whole arm to move hand.
  3. Keep fingers curved.
  4. Use strong fingers.
  5. Use both thumbs for the space bar.
  6. Use both hands for two-keystroke commands.
  7. Use a light touch.
  8. Work at a comfortable pace.
  9. Take frequent breaks.
  10. Keep your fingernails short.
  11. Stretch frequently.
  12. Don’t squeeze the mouse.

Forty typing hours later, she emails to ask how I’m doing. “You were right about the progress being slow,” I say. “My pinkies still fly in the air when the rest of the fingers are typing, and I suspect there’s still some ulnar deviation going on.” (I just wanted to say that.) But I’m testing keyboard trays next week, and I’ve set my mouse on a little stool next to me for the time being. My shoulders like it, but my typing speed has dropped by about 10 percent, which isn’t so good.”
So in the bloom of middle age, I’ve figured out how to walk, I’m learning to type, and I’m grateful for the reeducation. But I’m not letting anyone watch me bowl.

Suzanne Gerber, former Living & Learning editor for Next Avenue, writes about inspirational topics including health, food, travel, relationships and spirituality. Read More
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