The Dvorak keyboard and the dark side of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

23rd August, 2011 by

You have probably all heard of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, a horrible triple whammy that lies in wait for all those tethered to their laptops (and Smartphones) and indirectly related to the place our fingers spend most of their time: A Qwerty keyboard.

But perhaps less known is that way back in 1936 a new keyboard was patented by Dr. August Dvorak that promised not only a more comfortable typing experience but could increase your typing speed by 74%.

Like most useful inventions it was marveled at, ridiculed, scoffed at, forgotten and of course, eventually revisited.

The reason this interests me is because several months ago I was diagnosed with a cousin of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, something called an Ulna Nerve Contortion or conversely, Cubital Tunnel Syndrome.  In my case, the symptoms included an unsettling numbness in the pinkie finger, ring finger (and generally entire left side) of my left hand.

Since I am heavily involved in website design, development and copywriting this is a big deal to me.  It affects my livelihood and took me completely by surprise. It’s kind of like dipping your pinkie finger into a bucket of ice until you get an odd numbness, which never goes away! Weird!

I wager that very few designers/developers reading this blog have ever heard of Cubicle Tunnel Syndrome (or an Ulna nerve contortion) but it is serious stuff.

After two visits to a medical doctor, a sports physician and finally a nerve specialist, I was presented with three options: Steroid treatment, wait it out or get surgery.

After a 10-day steroid intake I did not get a visible improvement so I am now currently waiting it out since an operation is usually only 60-70% successful. (I would then need to spend 3-4 weeks resting my hand. No stupid comments, please! :))

My last visit to the nerve specialist involved an electronic measuring of how fast it takes for a nerve signal to travel from my elbow to my pinkie finger. In six months I will take another measurement and see if there has been an improvement.

The result is I now need to find new ways to ergonomically improve my work environment including using voice activated software and researching things like, well, you guessed it, new keyboards.

The Qwerty keyboard is most often described as a ‘hack’ to work around the mechanical limitations of early typewriters.  It’s original intent was to replace two-letter combinations on opposite sides of the keyboard, especially in manual typewriters.  But, in the computer age this original requirement, including limiting keyboard jamming, is no longer really necessary.

By default, Qwerty is now the standard offering, but is it the best?

Prior World War II research showed that Dvorak’s patent could possibly increase speed and reduce the stress on your palm and fingers. But, later tests disputed these findings.

According to an MIT paper/article, the Dvorak keyboard showed great accuracy amongst typists, because “the most common digraphs (two-letter combinations, such as “ed”) in English would occur with a minimum of “hurdling” (having to jump over a key as if it were a hurdle), and would use stronger fingers rather than weaker ones.”

MIT said that Dvorak estimated that the fingers of an average typist in his day travelled between 12 and 20 miles on a qwerty keyboard; the same text on a Dvorak keyboard would require only about one mile of travel.

Thus, Dvorak believed that hurdling and awkward keystroke combinations were responsible for most of the common errors typists make.  Many claimed his tests were flawed but it is generally accepted that the Dvorak keyboard does promote faster and more comfortable keystrokes.

Consider this comment from the author of the MIT paper:

The greatest benefit I’ve found from the Dvorak layout is that, in addition to feeling more comfortable, the typing-related discomfort I was beginning to experience in my wrists and forearms diminished, even though the amount of typing I was doing remained constant. Once my workplace switched from DOS to Windows and I was able to use the Dvorak layout everywhere, those problems vanished and have not returned. I believe that Dvorak’s claims that his layout requires less “hurdling” over keys and less total finger travel are true, and that this is more or less directly responsible for the reduction in RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) symptoms that I have experienced.

The Dvorak keyboard patent is an interesting example of how something that could improve our life in the computer age is not widely in use.  While consumers may clamor for a Qwerty keyboard, since this is all they know, it may not be the best thing for them.

If anybody reading this blog is experiencing numbness in your fingers I highly suggest you do some research on the web, since the longer you avoid treatment the more likely it could become permanent.

Here are some basic starter links that might help:

Ulnar nerve entrapment

Cubital tunnel

WebMD, Cubital and Radial Tunnel Syndrome


We would also be interested in any comments from those who may already have been diagnosed with this condition or are experiencing some of the symptoms.


Guest Blogger: Jason Stevens from / Freelance web developer, tech writer and follower of cloud computing trends. Follow him on Twitter @_jason_stevens_

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