Carpal-Tunnel Test

Posted: August 16, 2016 | By:

When you use a word processor, do you press the Tab or Space key several times to center paragraphs? Do you press the Enter key twice to ensure there is space between paragraphs? Are you frequently clicking the ribbon buttons B, U, and I? If you do, you’re in danger, so read on.

One scourge of the computing age is repetitive strain injury (RSI). This injury occurs quite often when using the mouse incorrectly or when typing excessively at the keyboard. Either of these habits can lead to bursitis, tendinitis, or (less likely) carpal-tunnel syndrome. Among computer users, symptoms of RSI include pain in the fingers, palms, or wrists; the pain may be burning, aching, or shooting.

To avoid RSI, we should try to use the mouse and keyboard as little as possible. Fortunately, there are features in all modern word processors that can align and space paragraphs with far greater accuracy than doing so with the Tab, Space, or Enter keys—which means less keyboarding, lower chance of RSI, and more protection for your precious hands. Consider the following example.

image of word file showing excessive keyboarding

This is a prime example of failing the “carpal-tunnel test” for the following reasons:

  • There are 72 spaces (yellow shading) in the header in an attempt to flush the text to the right and left margins.
  • There are nine empty paragraphs (marked in dark red) used to space between other paragraphs.
  • There are three empty tabs (also marked in dark red) used to align signature lines under each other.
  • There are 231 underlines (blue shading) used to create the signature lines.

(This sample is contrived, but you can find actual documents with this type of excessive keyboarding on the internet.)

That’s a total of 315 keyboard hits, and they could have been replaced with five. All the tabbing and underlining and spacing could have been accomplished without touching Space once and without any “empty” paragraphs. Over 310 keystrokes could have been saved on just these few paragraphs. Considering a career using a word processor could span 40 years, that may add up to one million saved keystrokes. What would you do with your precious fingers instead of banging on the keyboard one million times?

(Does your Word file pass the carpal-tunnel test? Submit it to our validator.)

Another sign of the carpal-tunnel test is clicking toolbar buttons. Are you constantly clicking the bold, italic, and underline buttons? Do you frequently select a font size from the toolbar, or use the format painter to make formatting consistent? Excessive clicking on the mouse is one of the most dangerous long-term health issues in the office environment, and often cited as a contributor to RSI. There are techniques to reduce the number of clicks, and they add years to your hands’ health. Consider the following example.

French cuisine is considered unparalleled in its sophistication. Aspiring chefs can spend years learning how to prepare Demi-Glace, Bordelaise, Sauce Robert, Lyonnaise, Sauce Madeira, Sauce Bercy, and Sauce Chasseur.

There are seven instances of words set in italics, implying that this required selecting those words and clicking the italic button on the toolbar seven times. In fact, this formatting can be accomplished with one click of the toolbar button and one instance of find-replace—a result that requires less time and is less damaging to the hands. (More on that technique in a future blog post.)

This brings us to a definition of the carpal-tunnel test: Using unnecessarily repeated keyboard hits or mouse clicks to achieve a formatting or layout effect. Generally, if you are repeatedly hitting the same key on the keyboard more than once, you are failing the carpal-tunnel test.

For authors to inflict upon themselves RSI is bad enough; it’s worse when they force their readers to also press keys unnecessarily. Here’s an example of needless suffering:

For more information about this finding, see below.

Saying more information is “below” is like saying aliens were spotted “in Asia.” We do know the information is below, so we start hitting PageDown until we find it. Later, to go back to the place where we were reading, we need to hit PageUp the same number of times.

Another source of needless suffering is page upon page of sparse or distracting text.

Table 4 lists the number of lightning strikes on Europa’s surface every five nanoseconds since March 3, 2011.

[five pages of data tables]

Clearly, this frequency of lightning strikes proves that while life may have been possible on Europa, it’s probably been frizzed by now.

In this case, the reader needed to hit PageDown several times through the Word or PDF file to read from one sentence to the next.

Clicking many times to find a given section in a report, or pressing Page Down or Page Up through pages of sparse text, is a sign of poor layout or poor document accessibility. It’s also not very considerate toward the person we care about most—our readers. We can use the word processor’s features to show mercy on our readers’ hands and to avoid failing the carpal tunnel test.

Future posts on this blog will explain techniques for passing the carpal-tunnel test.

Sources used in this post.

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, 2013. NINDS Repetitive Motion Disorders Information Page. Available at http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/repetitive_motion/repetitive_motion.htm.

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, 2009. Avoid the Mouse Trap. In Health and Safety Report. Available at http://www.ccohs.ca/newsletters/hsreport/issues/2009/02/ezine.html.

Scott, Clay. 2015. Repetitive Strain Injury. Available at https://web.eecs.umich.edu/~cscott/rsi.html##symptoms.

Tests for Poor Word Processing Habits


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