Computer Workstation Ergonomics

I spend almost every waking moment in front of a computer. I'm what you might call an indoor enthusiast. I've been lucky not to experience any kind of computer-related injury due to my prolonged use of computers, but it is a very real professional risk. I get some occasional soreness in my hands or wrists, mostly after marathon binges where I've clearly overdone it – but that's about the extent of it. All too many of my friends have struggled with long-term back pain or hand pain. While you can (and should) exercise your body and exercise your hands to strengthen them, there's one part of this equation I've been ignoring.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at:

I’m beginning to wonder about that top-of-the-monitor-at-eye-level thing. That advice dates back at least to the time that 13" monitors were considered large. Should I still keep the top of my 24" iMac monitor at eye level? If so, I’m going to need to find a really short desk or maybe a desk with a monitor well.

  1. Preferring the keyboard over the mouse whenever possible. On those rare occasions when I start feeling twinges, I usually find it’s due to excessive mousing rather than excessive typing.

Kevin, great point. I have an ergonomically designed trackball made by Logitech. It’s the smaller of ones they make. I was thinking to myself last night that I had to stop using it as my wrist was just killing me. Event though it’s ‘ergonomically’ designed, after serious prolonged use it didn’t matter how it was designed, it hurt.

Come to think of it, I credit a lot of my keyboard shortcut learning not merely because of the speed increase, but also because my hands generally felt better after using them instead of a mouse. If it’s a shortcut I may not know, sometimes I’d rather hit some keys trying to find the right ones than going back to the mouse due to the wrist pain.

I sit with my chair back and feet up… they’re on a monitor box under my desk. The result being an easy-chair posture, which I feel reduces pressure on the back.

I’ve also noticed that the fat programmers seem to get carpal tunnel more than the thin ones… I assume it’s because the wideness of their trunk forces their elbows out, so the wrists have to be bent outwards in order to use a keyboard. I suppose a split keyboard would help, but the best thing would be to lose weight, fatties!


I use Workrave to remind me to get up from time to time. Mostly I ignore it, but occasionally it works. Another alternative is ScreenRest:

You also need to to get away from the computer and do some regular exersize to avoid becoming a Gunnery Sergeant Hartmandisgusting fatbody/Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. I recommend martial arts. Its hard to think about work when someone is trying to kick you in the head. ;0)

good post!

i learned a few things the hard way on this. i had good posture and workstation but for awhile i didn’t do much else than write software.

here’s what i learned:

  • anything you do will need to include seriously cut back work schedule. you must learn to stay away from the keyboard when not working. if you don’t, any gains you would’ve had from these other items will be used up. my employer hired a typist for me!

  • it’s important to be strong diversify your activities. thus sayeth the physiotherapist: strength is an important part of durability. (i work around the house much more now).

  • stop RIGHT AWAY if you have a problem (i didn’t).

  • it seems to be difficult to diagnose but see a doctor and especially a physiotherapist–especially one in a big city who specializes in hands (Vancouver Hand Physiotherapy Clinic). x-rays may show nothing. it was simple “over use”. in my case it was simple over use…each “over use” episode makes the next one come easier.

  • i converted to Dvorak keyboard layout. it helps but regrettably it makes you incompatible with other keyboard layouts. it’s worth it–my fingers are better now.

  • do some finger massages, clenched fists, and any other exercises recommended.

  • i use the shift keys during coding only…hence the near complete absence of capital letters.

  • i keep a newspaper at my desk try to stop for a few minutes an hour to read a page or so.

  • have also sometimes set up my mouse on the left side for a while.

I find that the best ergonomic advice is that there is no one optimal position. You have to keep moving and adjusting and shifting in your seat every five or ten minutes. If you habitually sit in any single position for extended periods of time – yes, even the ergonomics-guide-blessed one above – you will have problems.

It helps me that I’m a bit of a natural fidgeter.

I still use the MS Natural keyboard I got in 1995; it’s the most comfortable I’ve seen. But the big number pad on the right can be an issue. It puts the mouse further away.

So I switched to left handded mousing. The mouse is now left of my keyboard. I also switched the mouse buttons.

It took a couple days to get used to it, but now it’s no problem.

I think another important thing to note when organising your desk is to make sure your keyboard can be directly in front of your monitor. If you are trying to sit correctly and touch type you must sit directly in front of your keyboard. If your keyboard is not, as in a lot of cases, in front of your monitor you then have to turn your head.

I use the original MS Natural keyboard. None since work as well for me. I’ve had to get friends at MS to help me find them since they’ve been replaced with newer (less good) models.

The distance to the mouse doesn’t bother me a bit. I’m a computer programmer, but I’m also a firefighter with very broad shoulders so the mouse isn’t any further to the right than is my natural reach. The full width of the Natural keyboard with number pad is not as wide as the distance between my elbows resting at my side.

I work for the company, Humanscale,, which is exclusively all about ergonomics. We design and manufacture top-of-the line ergonomic tools that will enhance the workstation, and bring a user’s work TO the person, as opposed to you reaching for it. For example, even with a great ergonomic chair, if you aren’t sitting in it correctly and you need to lean forward to do your tasks each day, you will have improper back posture, therefore leading to back problems. We manufacture more keyboard trays than anyone else on the market, that provide versatility and only let you have the neutral or downward wrist slope that this website describes. We also have monitor arms to bring the monitor to you, while letting you do tasks on your desk. Award winning seating solutions, and task lighting as well.

If you want more information, or you like the products you see from the Humanscale website, feel free to contact me directly at 212-725-4749 ext 147 and mention this website or DIGG’s website for great offers.

I have been struggling with RSI (hands and wrists) for some years now and my best advice is to take breaks (micro breaks and rest breaks) and limit the time in front of the computer.

Also make sure to visit a doctor that you are confident enough with as early as possible. I didn’t and are probably worse of due to that.

Does anyone know if there are any groups or lists (for “indoor enthusiasts”) for advices in these topics?

Hey Now Jeff,

Great post. Because of you I’ve improved my workstation ergonomics greatly. My neck used to hurt then I raised my monitor (my eye level is in the middle of my monitors now) no more pain there. I think it was because I was always looking down. I also bought the keyboard you recomend ms4000, like you said you spead so much on the other parts of your workstation why settle for a $10 keyboard.

I learned how to use the mouse left handed (did not switch buttons). About every couple weeks I switch hands. It took about a week to get used to it but was well worth the effort.

Now i can eat, drive and mouse with either hand!! :slight_smile:

If your keyboard is not, as in a lot of cases, in front of your monitor you then have to turn your head.

when you have 2 or 3 large monitors, you’ll have to turn your head.

I’m far too young to experiencing a back problem and yet I did when I threw a muscle shoveling snow a few years ago. I went on a quest to improve my seating environment at work to try and make it more active. I found a chair that really works for me. It’s called the Sit-A-Round (no link provided. If you’re interested in it then Google is your friend) ball chair and it provides an active seating surface. The chair forces me to tighten the stomach muscles and sit up straight because failing to do results in a sore back. I use it for about four hours a day then switch to a conventional chair. The other desk item I appreciate is a tilt and elevate keyboard drawer. I raise the drawer up and angle it down and away from me while on the ball, and then lower the drawer while in a regular chair. The result? I haven’t had any back issues for a few years. It probably helps that I’ve added back exercises to my workout routine as well.

My other suggestion is to get a keyboard without a numeric keypad which will bring the mouse closer to your right hand. The current keyboard design is antiquated when combined with a mouse since it shifts the entire body to left of centre of the monitor.

This is interesting and is something I’ve been interested in a while. I think the biggest problem for any and all, more so than just sitting at computer desks are laptops. There is no one way thats comfortable to work on a laptop unless you have an external mouse and keyboard.

The laptop sits too low for it to be at comfortable eye level which forces you to look down at it since its not comfortable to only shift your eyes downward (nor is it natural). If you put it at eye level, there is no way to have your arms in that position or sit that low in a chair and be comfortable. Essentially to properly work on a laptop, you really need an external keyboard mouse which somewhat defeats the purpose of it.

Maybe in a future world, we can have holo-screens that project the image at an ideal eye level based on each person :slight_smile: Boy that would be cool.


Ergonomic solutions are only part of solving the problem. My problems didn’t go
away until I changed my diet and got more exercise. Calcium supplements
helped as well (too much caffeine leaches it from bones and muscles).

I also suffered from RSI, more specifically tennis and golfer’s ellbow on both arms. After 3 years I’m not cured, and i don’t think I’ll ever be completely free of symptoms. But thanks to my doctor and physiotherapist i can now handle prolongued sessions of work or computer play again, although i must be careful not to overdo it (eg. not playing 3-days in a row for 10+ hours straight).

I’ve slowly upgraded my ergonomics, I got myself “the keyboard of the gods” (the latest MS Natural keyboard) but I’ve also been using something i can HIGHLY recommend to anyone, symptoms or not:

The ErgoRest forearm support:

It’ll cost about 300-600$ but it’s one of the things that, once you got used to it, you don’t want to miss it. Ever!

If I’m working on a computer that doesn’t have forearm support i feel the strain on the ellbows and shoulder within 10 minutes of working. After 30-60 minutes i start to feel pain which lasts for hours, kind of like sore muscles.

Here’s some more info about Tennis elbow for those interested:

Ergonomics …

About the overall workplace ergonomics i feel differently though. If you really try what they suggest, you end up sitting in a stiff and rather uncomfortable way and you actually have to force yourself into that position. I’ve never seen anyone who can sit “ergonomically” as suggested for more than 10 minutes. There are some recommendations you should really consider, eg the approximate placement of your screen, or that you should look at it in a 90 angle.

But it’s also been mentioned that, similar to food, there is just no “right” way in ergonomics and the REAL issue is just to not sit too long in the same position. Lean back and slide into your chair for half an hour, then sit straight up with your ellbows on the table and your head resting in your hands (ok, that’s only for reading Jeff’s blog), etc. etc.

Diversification is the key, not trying to strictly adhere to the rules of ergonomics. Any continued stress on one part of your body is going to build up stress, so change how you sit often. That’s my advice.

I’ve found myself that the one thing that did the most to ease RSI in my wrists was to change keyboards. I got a kinesis contoured keyboard back in 1997 and I’ve never used anything else since. You get a lot of odd looks and everyone ooohs and aaahs over it for the first day, but other than that (and the admittedly heavy price tag - but hey, how expensive are new wrists?) it’s a straightforward plug-n-play solution to the problem.

Happily, they’re a bit cheaper in Ireland these days because they don’t just sell them in California anymore…