Most people have one of three mouse grip styles, and don't know which is theirs. Even if more of us are swiping on phones and tablets for leisure these days, work often forces us to use a real computer from nine to five. Whether it's because of a desktop with a garbage mouse that came free with the PC or a laptop's track pad, few of us wonder why our wrists hurt at the end of the day. It's an accepted wisdom of using a computer—you just hurt after too many hours, and everyone is on a computer too much. But if you figure it out, and if you buy the right mouse to match it, you can say goodbye to carpal tunnel syndrome forever.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is the one everyone's familiar with: It happens when pressure on your inner wrist makes the median nerve swell, which causes numbness, tingling, pain, and weakness. “(Also), the increased time spent slouching can lead to muscle strain of the shoulder girdle or of the spine itself,” says Erica Taylor, a hand and upper-extremity surgeon at Duke Health. Over time, she says, this leads to muscular discomfort—known popularly as “mouse shoulder”—as well as stress on the forearm and elbow. Overuse, bad posture, and a mouse that fits your hand poorly can also cause thumb tendinitis, says David Rempel, a professor bioengineering and medicine at the University of California, Berkeley.
Computer peripheral manufacturers—but not medical professionals—have settled on three mouse grip styles: palm grip, claw grip, and tip grip. “Gamers have always naturally been gripping mice in variations of these three distinct grip styles,” says Hilmar Hahn, associate product marketing director for Razer, a peripheral manufacturer. Although most ergonomic mice are marketed to gamers, you don't have to be one to benefit from using a gaming mouse. It's just that the market goes where the money is, and gamers are the most willing to spend extra on a good mouse. Springing $40 for a low-end gaming mouse, one without a crazy amount of buttons to get in the way, can save your upper body from spreadsheets, e-mail, and internet use, too, once you figure out your grip style.
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Depending on who you ask, claw grip or palm grip make up the majority of mouse grip styles. (One manufacturer, EpicGear, claims that it's palm grip, while another I interviewed—Razer—asserts that it's claw grip.) When you hold a mouse palm style, you're latching onto it like it's a doorknob. Most of the palm's and fingers' surfaces are in contact with the mouse. It's a comfortable position to lay most of the hand's weight on the mouse, but movements are slow because of it. Mouses built for palm grip are big, wide, have a distinct hump on the back, and also typically have a spot for you to rest the entire ring finger, Hahn says.
Claw grip arches the hand more. Only the fingertips and a small portion of the palm contact the mouse. Having to move less hand weight to flick the mouse around gives claw grip an agility to quickly change the cursor's aim, which works well for twitchy video games but is mild enough to suit office work. The hump on the mouse's back is less pronounced, and the mouse is overall smaller than one built for palm grip, Hahn says.
For tip grip, all skin contact is by the fingertips. No part of the palm touches the mouse, leaving the wrist hovering unsupported in the air. It's even faster and more agile than claw grip, but it's also more tiring and clumsy. Making small adjustments on the screen with the mouse pointer, such as for graphics design, is tough because tip grip moves the mouse so quickly with little effort. These mice are small, Hahn says, and have a lower and flatter profile.
“(Pain is) mostly a result of using mice that are too big, too small, or too heavy for your hand size and strength over prolonged periods of time,” Hahn says, adding that an awkward grip or buttons that take too much pressure to press also contribute. It's worth remembering that a peripherals company has a vested interest in saying hardware is the main problem, but Rempel also lays some of the blame on the mouse itself. Symmetrical mice can lead to injuries, he says, and that you should look for asymmetrical with buttons that relatively easy to press.
The first step is to figure out your grip type and buy the right mouse for it. Normally that would mean heading to the gaming section of a computer store such as Best Buy and trying out all the mice. As those kind of stores disappear, though, it can be tough to find ergonomic mice in person. If you have to shop online, look for mice shapes that match the grip styles described above. If you have big hands, try a chunky arched mouse designed for palm grip, while if you want to play fast and twitchy video games, try one built for claw grip.
Don't wait until you hurt to start using a mouse correctly or to find a mouse that fits your grip style. Once pain is triggered, Rempel says, it becomes difficult to manage. When you're using a computer, keep the mouse a little above elbow height with your wrists relatively straight, he adds, and hold your upper arm close to your torso. Take a break every hour to avoid repetitive stress injuries.
“Every [person] will have different positioning preferences,” Taylor says. “There are users who prefer a mouse that is lower than the keyboard and others who prefer all components at the same level.” In any case, she says, the user should be sitting comfortably upright. It's strange to think the way your hand sits on a mouse can influence muscles and nerves all the way through your shoulder and spine, but comfort is key. Comfort leads to injury-free use. Besides $40 or so, what have you got to lose?
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