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Pain-Free Typing

These ergonomic keyboards can provide relief, but correct posture may be more important.

It's not enough that the work you do on your computer can be a real pain; there's also the real pain you endure working that computer.

These pains and strains on our fragile hands, neck and shoulders -- lumped under the nightmare rubric of "repetitive stress injuries" -- are the result of desk-jockeying a keyboard, monitor and mouse morning, noon and night. Worse, most keyboards and other interfaces that ship from popular computer vendors such as Dell (DELL) - Get Report, H-P (HPQ) - Get Report or even chic Apple (AAPL) - Get Report do little to soften the skeletal torture.

"People who experience neck, shoulder, forearm, wrist or thumb pain from using computers often welcome the idea of 'ergonomic' keyboards, which claim to reduce the risk of injury and increase comfort," says Deborah Quilter, a New York City-based consultant and author of The Repetitive Strain Injury Recovery Book.

The search for a better keyboard has sparked a cottage industry in so-called ergonomic interfaces that take body position and other factors into account.

These tools come mostly from esoteric vendors like

Fentek. But some of them can be odd to use -- for example, your hands are a mile apart on one split keyboard. And most are priced as if they were being shipped to the military: Fentek's Kenisis Advantage keyboard lists at a whopping $299.

But now mainstream peripheral vendors have started to take ergonomics seriously. These boards are being billed as "comfort interfaces" to avoid the sticky legal issue of who's to blame for Johnny not being able move his hands.

Microsoft

(MSFT) - Get Report

is now shipping the

Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 ($60), and I have spent the past month or so testing the new

Cordless Desktop Wave board ($89 with mouse) from

Logitech

(LOGI) - Get Report

and the

Optical Air Mouse ($70) from Gyration.

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In general, while far from the ultimate repetitive stress solution, both of these tools are a clear step up from the factory keyboard and mouse that came with my Dell.

To the Test

Setup of the Logitech Wave keyboard was fast and easy: Plug the wireless adapter into a USB port and run some software.

Unlike many other Logitech peripherals, the Wave is relatively uncluttered -- just a few outboard buttons for media players and paging through programs -- and a very nice toggle-zoom feature. Toggle up and the page zooms in. Toggle down the page zooms out.

The key action is excellent for such a cheap keyboard and the faint, almost elegant wave contour aided my tired tendons. Plus, the wireless capability let me pull my favorite ergo trick: working away from desk, standing up at a large work table.

However, the Wave is still very much a keyboard. Most of the typing is done with your four middle fingers, so the usual strains are in place: I still had to stretch my hands with my tendon ball and switch to two-finger typing every few minutes to relieve the tension, as I would with any keyboard. The Wave is not a miracle solution.

The bigger winner here is the Gyration Air Mouse. This unit is intended more as a projection and public-speaking gadget for teachers and salespeople, but as a stress-release tool, wow.

Essentially the thing looks like a phaser from the original

Star Trek

: a trigger-controlled ray gun thing with two main and three secondary thumb-activated mouse buttons. It sounds and looks, honestly, ridiculous. And you must allow plenty of time to figure this baby out -- you are controlling a pointer from across the room, for crying out loud.

But once you get the hang of it, nothing beats being able to click a mouse without using your tired middle fingers. I loved it.

There is a major caveat: These tools can only go so far in the battle to keep your hands from becoming mangled stumps.

Unfortunately, we are mostly to blame for our own stress injuries. A study of repetitive stress among 485 patients done by Dr. Emil F. Pascarelli at Columbia University in 2001 found that posture, not equipment, is the pivotal element in repetitive stress injuries.

"Proper stretching exercises, frequent rest breaks, icing and postural training are also of great importance," says Behzad Emad, a Los Angeles-based pain specialist with a practice in repetitive stress injuries. "Purchasing expensive equipment without considering behavior modifications ... is not going to be as effective."

In the end, I will do your aching hands and shoulders a favor by channeling my loving, but poor-posture-intolerant mother: "Sit up straight and breathe!"

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Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.