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Agile…but not in the wrists

So many of my colleagues have some degree of trouble with their
hands/wrists/arms. It’s a serious occupational hazard. Agile coding is a slightly different ballgame for me in terms of wrist problems.

My physical therapist for my first, worst episode — the episode that
left me with permanent nerve damage, nearly 20 years ago now —
stressed to me that damage is cumulative. Young coders can think
they’re invulnerable, but I’m here to preach to you: the pain can end
up being permanent. If it hurts to type, stop typing — please don’t do what I did, viz., shrug and keep going.

In the Agile/pair programming world the setup for workstations tends
to be a flat table, no special equipment, so that workstations are
interchangeable. No keyboard trays, nothing — not the best ergonomically. Here’s how I cope:

  • I have a great chair, an armless ZackBack (um, yes, I’ve written my name on it in big black letters, why do you ask?). Posture can be really important to keeping your arms healthy.
  • I use a flat keyboard, with as light a touch as possible — Macally is working well for me.
  • I put the keyboard in my lap, which creates a better angle for me.
    Alas, sometimes it maketh my typing to suck, but usually it’s okay.
  • I use two alternative mice: a Roller Mouse for clicking and most steering, and a pen mouse for the rest of the steering. It’s best for my hands if I use both of them to mouse at once. Clicking with the pen mouse once caused a flareup, and the roller mouse gets a little wild for precision steering, which means I put my hand in a bad position trying to control it. I used to use a foot mouse, and I recommend that too if you don’t mind a loud clomping sound every time you click. High learning curve with the steering, but great low-impact clicking. My fabulous former boss Lynne Cameron thought of it. (Miss you, Lynne!)
  • I turn on Sticky Keys, which means I don’t have to hold multiple keys at once. Unfortunately, it can be hard on my pair if we forget to turn it off. Sorry, folks. Think of it as a variant of Dvorak. Note that it’s a good idea to disable the “beep when a modifier key is turned on” option if you value your sanity, and enable “Press shift five times to turn on or off”. (Also that, arghh, the new Apple keyboard goes a little berserk with Sticky Keys turned on. The arrow keys don’t work at all, for example.)
  • I make sure the monitor (we’re an all-iMac shop) is on a riser or phone book or something so that the top of the screen is level with my eyes. Bent neck equals bad posture.

All these help to make the setup sustainable for me. The other thing
about pairing that makes sense ergonomically is, of course, the fact
that your hands get a break whenever your pair is typing (if you ever
let them type — I am a confirmed keyboard hog, but I’m trying to mend my ways!).

Just one more wrist hazard of agile coding: all the self-applauding and high-fiving — paired code is so much better than code written solo.

How do you cope with your wrist limitations?

  • Joe Moore

    I use a [](Kinesis Advantage Contoured Keyboard) not to cope with wrist problems, but to prevent them. I started getting concerned that people 5+ years younger than me were getting serious wrist problems, to the point where they were receiving physical therapy and under doctors orders _not_ to type, which makes it kinda hard to do my job as a professional programmer. I wrote about it in an post I titled [Floss your Teeth, Put on Sunscreen, and use an Ergonomic Keyboard.](

  • This blog is fun to read whether you understand it or not!

    >How do you cope with your wrist limitations?

    I stretch and loosen up a lot before typing, or using them for anything, really. And I take breaks. Also, I give positive reinforcement to others who are coping with these kinds of problems.

  • Peter Hessler

    ironically, I find the best for me is when I’m slouched, using a laptop (my home machine is a dell latitude d630) on my lap.

    and those “ergonomic” keyboards cause intense pain for me. type on one for 5 minutes, and I’m so bad I can’t even hold a glass.

  • Strength and flexibility – downward dog, push-ups, and handstands.

  • Brennan

    I used to use a wrist pad in front of my keyboard at my old data entry job. I don’t type nearly as much now as a programmer, and I’ve adapted to use a healthier position by habit, with less chance of slipping back since I’m not usually typing for more than a few seconds at a time. So wrists have ceased to be an issue for me. I just wish I could say the same about my neck and back, which I see a Chiropractor every other week for. I’m 21.

  • It’s probably good to bear in mind that the ‘wrists’ or ‘hands’ are often not the actual source of the problem. RSI often hits hardest in the arms, shoulders, neck, and back, and any solutions have to go after those places as well. Many ‘hand’ symptoms, for example, can be traced to nerve entrapments in the scalenes muscles, which are in your neck just above your collarbone. I recommend the book *It’s Not Carpal Tunnel Syndrome!* by Damany and Bellis for more information.

  • There was a period of time recently when I wasn’t pair programming, and my right wrist was going to hell. I switched to mousing with the left hand, which was rough for a few weeks but eventually became like second nature. My right wrist recovered and now I switch back and forth (and eschew the mouse as much as possible) to keep both wrists happy(er).

    But my back is still troubled. Thanks for the book recommendation, Michael!

  • Brian Takita

    Good posture is important to me. There are three major blood arteries that go between the chest and shoulders. When my shoulders roll forward, the arteries get constricted.

  • Shifra Pride Raffel

    Interesting hearing from y’all. And yes, I talk about “wrist problems”, but it’s really “body problems,” because my neck and back complain sometimes too, and after all, the wrist bone’s connected to the… other bones… Also I forgot to say that, although I’m under dr’s orders not to try to strengthen my forearm or wrist, I do lift weights to keep my biceps, core, and legs strong, and that makes a big difference. Also, regular aerobic exercise seems to help a lot with circulation and not holding tension in shoulder/neck area.

  • I’m with Mike, as well, actually. Not only does [learning to mouse with the left-hand even out the wrist strain, but I also think it is overall a more ergonomic position, due to the placement of the numpad](

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