Emacs causes RSI?

Just a random thought but I seriously wonder, does Emacs cause repetative strain injury? I know some emacs fans might see that as flamebait but it’s a serious question. I know a few programmers with RSI syndrome and 3 of 4 are emacs users. There are times I’ve had to use emacs for extended periods and I noticed how much I had to torque my hands to press things like Ctrl-X, Ctrl-S for Save or Ctrl-X, Ctrl-C for quit or Esc-Ctrl-2 for split and Esc-Ctrl-O for Other buffer, Ctrl-Y for yank etc..

Not that this is a good thing but back in the late 80s, early 90s I got hooked on then famous editor called Brief by Underware. Back then there were no standard keys for Windows programs like Ctrl-C for copy or Ctrl-V for paste. Brief used keypad + for copy and insert to paste. In both cases there is less stress on my hand to press 1 key than 2.

Like many people I got hooked on my editor and have never switched keys. I switched to Visual Slickedit sometime around 93-94 but Slickedit has Brief emulation and so I’ve never switched back.

Once in a while think maybe I should switch to the semi standard CUA keys as they are called. Unforunately, every time I try I find the strain on my hands is too much.

Examples: In brief, search is F5, replace is F6. In CUA search is like Ctrl-F. Ctrl-F is a much bigger strain on my hands than F5 is. Other examples, in CUA top of document is, to be honest I don’t know. I think it’s some crazy thing like Ctrl-Shift-PageUp or something. In Brief it’s Home Home Home. Pressing Home once takes you to the beginning of the current line, pressing it again takes you to the stop of the current screen, pressing a third time take you to the top of the document. Must less hand stress than trying to press 3 keys at once. Similar End End End goes the other direction.

Anyway, knowing that so many emacs users have RSI issues I wonder if seriously the default key choices are the cause. Of course you can reconfigure all of them but hardly anyone changes the defaults.

Some medical student should look into it. How many programmers have RSI and what editor they use. Divide the number of people with RSI that use a particular editor by the number of programmers that use that editor say in the entire CS department of a few universities and see if there is any correlation between the editor used and the incidence of RSI. I’d bet there would be some correlation even if that would not prove cause.

It would be good to know. If it did turn out to be true then people would know to reconfigure their editor getting a chance to lower their RSI risk and it would also encourage application designers to choose keys that lower RSI.

Someone do this study and get famous!

  • ben
    try switching the caps lock and control keys

    Hi Greg,

    Back when I learned emacs the control key was next the ‘a’ key. I have never felt any strain using a keyboard with that configuration. Also on an modern mac the native cocoa text fields support many of the emacs control key sequences such as control-c and control-y, control-a and control-f, etc.

    Now the first thing I do on a new computer is replace the caps lock key with control and leave the default control key in place too. I find I do not miss the caps lock at all. Emacs also a simple function to upcase a region in case you need it.


  • Brief caused my RSI

    I just found this post and it made me chuckle – I was a diehard Emacs user until I started doing games programming professionally back in the early 90’s. At that time we were working on a PC-based 3D game and it seemed like Brief was the editor of choice for programming on the PC. Unfortunately, soon after I switched to Brief and started using the frigging arrow keys for everything, I started getting RSI symptoms.

    I wonder if developing RSI problems is more a matter of changing what you’re used to, and stressing under-used muscles, than any particular configuration?

  • anononymous

    Emacs has reduced the number of times I’ve felt the twinge of RSI. I think it’s because I tended to reach for the arrow keys all the time, or worse, copied and pasted with the mouse. Scrolling with the wheel really messes your hand up after a while. Remapping CAPS LOCK really is the way to go however. Seriously. Otherwise emacs pinky sets in within weeks. How often do you use it CAPS LOCK, except for being SHOUTING OBNOXIOUSLY WHILE ONLINE.

  • brian
    Another data point

    In college, I really wanted to learn emacs and got RSI symptoms after a month or so. I quit emacs, went to dvorak, and switched to a better keyboard and I no longer have RSI issues.

    Btw, I tried emacs again recently, and had pain within minutes.

  • Xah

    might check out this article

    “Celebrity Programers With Hand Injuries” at

  • Victor

    I actually did my own hack to avoid using the ctrl key. I use now the SPACEBAR key. This (https://github.com/r0adrunner/Space2Ctrl) small program for X changes the behavior of the space bar, so that when it is used in a combination, it adds the control modifier to it. When used alone, it behaves normally on release. That way you don’t have to use your pinky at all! Worked perfectly for me.