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Don’t go numb on your next bike ride

One of the most frequent questions I get asked by cyclists is why different parts of their bodies become numb while riding. What happens when you’re cycling is no different than what happens when your arm or leg "falls asleep." Sustained pressure on a body part can disrupt the blood flow to nerves. The unhappy nerve then sends your brain abnormal sensory information, which is perceived as a feeling of numbness and tingling. Believe it or not, that feeling of numbness has a name—paresthesia. When the pressure is relieved the blood flow is restored and the nerve reawakens with that annoying "pins and needles" feeling before returning to normal. 

There are areas where cyclists most often experience paresthesia, and it's because of the sustained pressure on certain body parts that are in contact with your bike. 

Hands and fingers

Handlebar palsy is caused by prolonged pressure on the ulnar sensory nerve, which causes your hand to ache and the ring and little fingers to feel numb.

Carpal tunnel syndrome can occur when the median nerve is compressed through the "tunnel" between the bones of your wrist. Numbness in your second and third finger occurs if your wrist is in one position too long.

Solution and prevention: 

  1. Always wear well-padded gloves to absorb the shocks and jolts from the road.
  2. Change hand positions on the handlebars frequently.
  3. Adjust your bike to allow for a more upright position, taking pressure off your hands and wrists. Raising the handlebars, even slightly, can help redistribute pressure.

Groin

Perineal numbness is one of the last things most athletes want to discuss with their provider, but you are not alone! This effects up to 90 percent of male and female cyclists. The perineum is the area between the anus and the base of the penis in males and between the anus and the vagina in females. Prolonged pressure on your bike seat compresses nerves in your perineum, which may cause long-lasting numbness and even sexual dysfunction.  

Solution and prevention: 

Studies have compared lots of bike seat styles and there are not clear recommendations. Researchers do seem to agree that two types are major contributors to perineal numbness: a narrow seat that doesn't support your pelvis's "sit" bones and an elevated seat nose. 

  1. Frequently change positions.
  2. Try lowering your bike seat slightly and tilting the nose down.
  3. A split seat may help male cyclists. 

Spine

Cervical or lumbar radiculopathy (commonly known as pinched nerve) occurs when a nerve in the neck is irritating, causing neck pain radiating down one arm or low back pain radiating down one leg.

Solution and prevention: 

Unfortunately, compression of a spinal nerve is a serious problem and merits a trip to your provider.

Feet

Numb feet are caused by nerve pressure, too. As you exercise, the blood flowing to your muscles increases, causing your foot volume to increase. However, your foot is bound inside your shoe, causing pressure. This problem is harder to solve because you can’t change foot position frequently, especially if you are clipped into pedals.

Solution and prevention: 

  1. Make sure your cycling shoes fit well and are the right size.
  2. Sometimes, adding an arch support insert like Superfeet or Dr. Scholl’s arch support can help by redistributing pressure evenly over the sole of the foot.
  3. If you have clip-in pedals, try changing the cleat placement to a position more behind the ball of your foot. 

Any numbness that last longer than a few hours or converts to persistent pain or weakness should be evaluated by a provider. Be kind to your nerves and do your best to keep moving for a cycling season free of paresthesia.

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