For years I had pain in my shoulder from long hours logged at the computer, but I fixed it by switching keyboards. It worked for me, and I hope it works for you too.
What Is “Mouse Shoulder” Pain?
When people think about workplace injuries, they usually think about the dramatic ones like severe injury from an accident with machinery or such. But for lots of people whose jobs entail doing small movements over and over again, injuries more often take the form of repetitive stress injury (RSI).
You end up with shoulder pain not because you blew out your rotator cuff but because you had poor posture and ergonomics at your workstation. And even when you do your best to pay attention to ergonomics, sometimes you still end up with a problem on your hands.
That’s the situation I found myself in with a nagging and persistent shoulder pain, a type of pain I’d later find out is called “mouse shoulder” on account of how extended and poorly-optimized mouse usage leads to the pain.
While the pain tends to be multifaceted—people experience everything from a stabbing sensation in the ball of the shoulder to general tension and tenderness in the shoulder as a whole to neck stiffness and headaches—it’s the stabbing pain that usually makes most people go “something is wrong with my shoulder.”
That stabbing pain in the front of the shoulder which feels like it is coming from just under the anterior deltoid is usually caused by irritation of the bicep tendon. It’s not the deltoid that hurts in that case, it’s the top of the bicep and the related tendon that passes under the deltoid.
Although there are a variety of factors that can contribute to mouse shoulder, including how high or low your desk (or keyboard tray) sits relatively to your body, how long (and how actively) you use your mouse per day, and so on, there is one very overlooked factor that it took me far too long to zero in on.
While I can’t promise what worked for me will work for you, it is my genuine hope that many people reading this article will find relief for their nagging computer-induced shoulder pain the same way I did.
Why This Common Keyboard Causes Shoulder Pain
Over the years, I made a variety of adjustments to my workstation ergonomics in a bid to alleviate whatever was causing my shoulder pain.
First, I switched from a regular mouse to a trackball mouse which did, in fact, help decrease the pain. By moving my hand, arm, and shoulder less—with a trackball, the mouse is stationary and you merely move your thumb or fingers—the degree to which the shoulder was irritated decreased.
After that, I added an adjustable keyboard tray so I could type and use the mouse with a negative tilt to relieve pressure on my wrists (and hopefully my shoulder too). Again, that helped (it was great for my wrists!), but it merely reduced the pain a little.
I even mixed in a really comfortable and adjustable Steelcase Leap chair so I could ensure my arms were supported at the proper height. The chair proved to be the most comfortable office chair I’d ever owned and helped in so many ways, but it wasn’t the silver bullet for the shoulder issue.
Then one day, almost entirely by accident, I stumbled upon a pain-free way to use the mouse. I had bumped the keyboard to the left-hand side (I’m right-handed), and the mouse was closer to the centerline of my body. I realized there was no twinge-y pain in my shoulder. It was still sore, but it was residual soreness and not fresh irritation from using the mouse at that moment.
The only problem was, now, the keyboard was so hopelessly off center that there was no way for me to use the mouse in the less painful location and also type on the keyboard without contorting my body in a way that was just going to cause new pain somewhere else.
The keyboard I had—the same keyboard millions of people around the world have—is what as known as a “full-sized,” “100%,” or “104-key” computer keyboard. Full-sized keyboards have the standard set of letters, numbers, and basic keys, plus the home key and arrow cluster and then a complete calculator-like number pad on the end. Giant keyboards have been the standard format for over forty years.
The everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach leads to a board width of around 18 inches. The distance from the center of the home row finger placement (the gap between the G and the H key) to the edge of the board ends up being around 13 inches.
With those distances, practically, the closest a person using a standard right-hand-side number pad 104-key keyboard can get their right-hand-side mouse to the center of the keyboard is around 16-20 inches depending on whether they used a trackball or standard mouse and how much space they need to use it.
As a result, most people using such a large keyboard are forced to cock their arm away from the centerline of their body by approximately 10-15 degrees. That doesn’t seem like much, but the ideal angle would be zero degrees out of alignment, with your arm positioned in a neutral position 90 degrees relative to the plane of your torso. The further you rotate your arm away from the centerline, the more pressure and discomfort you feel in your shoulder while using the mouse.
So millions of people around the world are using a keyboard setup that forces them to hold their arm out at a slightly over-extended angle that significantly increases their chance of computer-related injury and pain.
Switching to a Tenkeyless Board Banished My Pain
We’ve talked about what causes mouse shoulder. We’ve talked about how the majority of people around the world—myself included, for many years—are using a really wide keyboard that isn’t ergonomic. What’s the solution?
The solution is to ditch the number pad and swap your bulky 104-key full-size keyboard for a shortened model, known as a tenkeyless keyboard or 87-key keyboard.
A tenkeyless keyboard is 80% the width of a 104-key keyboard and is essentially the same design in every regard except the missing number pad. Dropping the number pad reduces the length of the board by about 4 inches and allows you to pull the mouse in tighter. Pulling the mouse in tighter relieves the strain on your shoulder.
It sounds too good to be true, but after years of the same persistent shoulder pain when I switched from a full-size keyboard to a tenkeyless keyboard, my pain vanished.
I didn’t get physical therapy, do any fancy stretches or exercises, or anything beyond switching to a keyboard that allowed me to move my trackball mouse in tighter and reduce the angle of extension from that 10-15 degrees down to more like 0-3 degrees. What shocked me the most was that the pain resolved itself almost immediately. Within days of making the adjustment, it went away and never came back.
Now while I’ve spent all these years banging away on a WASD Code Keyboard, you don’t have to shell out $150+ for a tenkeyless keyboard—though I have nothing but good things to say about the Code.
There are plenty of really reasonably priced tenkeyless mechanical keyboards on the market for under $100, like the HyperX Alloy Origins or the incredibly budget-friendly Redragon K552. I would never have thought a mechanical keyboard under $40 would be worth it, but the K522 is a great value.
At this point, you couldn’t pay me to go back to using a full-size board. If I really needed a number pad, I’d sooner buy a detachable one and learn to use it with my left hand rather than go back to having persistent shoulder pain. And hopefully, after reading this, you’ll give tenkeyless keyboards a chance and enjoy the same shoulder-pain free experience too.