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Cycling and wrist discomfort

by Richard Masoner

Matthew mentioned in a comment that his fingers go numb while cycling. There are a couple of things that can cause wrist, hand and finger discomfort while cycling.

  • Wrist pronation. Stand up with your arms hanging down the sides of your body. Your hands are probably more or less flat against your thighs. Now bend your elbows so your forearms are parallel to the ground. The ‘natural’ position of your hands is still perpendicular to the ground. To grasp a typical horizontal mountain bike riser handlebar, you must rotate your hands in about 90 degrees.
      

    This wrist pronation can decrease circulation in the forearm and wrist and put pressure on some sensitive nerves and tendons. To avoid pain, it’s important to move your hands around. This is why I favor handlebars with multiple hand positions such as drop bars and bullhorn bars; for long distance cycling these types of bars are essential. Various bar ends or extenders can be attached to horizontal riser handlebars to give you the additional hand positions you need to avoid discomfort.

  • Nerve pressure. Another common cause of hand pain and numbness is pressure on the nerves in your hands. One problem pressure point is the middle of the base of your palm. Padding in gloves or handlebars is key to reducing this problem. Be sure to use quality gloves — some poorly designed gloves that are heavily padded may make the problem worse by increasing the pressure in the middle of your palm.
      

    Positioning and fit can have a dramatic impact on your palm pressure. Handlebars that are too low, for example, puts more weight on your arms, where are more upright position moves the weight back to your seat and legs. A saddle that is nose down also forces more pressure to your arms and hands, as you must push back to keep yourself from sliding off of the saddle.

    Finally, don’t lock your elbows when you ride, but keep your elbows relaxed so your arms can bend to absorb the shock of riding.

Commute By Bike is not a medical resource. Prevention is the best medicine, but if you suffer from pain or numbness you should see a health professional for evaluation.

 
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26 Responses to “Cycling and wrist discomfort”

  1. Quinn says:

    All good advice!

    I constanrly fight arm pain due to a broken Navicular (wrist) and linear crack in the Radius, and the 2 things that work best for me are ego grips and swept bars, ° MonkeyLites to the On*One Mary.

  2. Rose in Arizona says:

    I just recently switched from flat bar style (with a rise) to repurposed Schwinn tourist bars (looks like North Road). They are so much more comfortable for me. My bike is a hybrid (Giant Suede), which is used for relaxing trips in an upright position.

  3. Mike says:

    In ’91, I wrote a bit for a mountain bike magazine about converting your mounting bike to drop bars – specifically the WTB drop bar which had a widely flared dropped section. The benefit (besides the multiple hand positions) was reduced pressure on wrist, forarm, and hands. Here’s a link for those interested: http://tinyurl.com/47nfy2

    Today, I do quite a few bar swaps to 24 and 40 degree sweeped risers and ergonomic style grips for riders who are now uncomfortable on the mountain bike they bought when they were 10-15 years younger.

  4. Scott says:

    I’m running an Origin8 SpaceBar (copy of the Mary) and Ergon grips on my 29er. No more numbness and I feel like I have just as much control…maybe better actually.

  5. CJ says:

    I love my Midge bars!! I am riding them more like regular drop bars then what they were intended to be used for. What I mean is that I have the tops of my bars equal to my saddle height. So, I often ride on the flats, hoods and the curves from the flat section to the hoods. I really like the drop sections because they are shallow and wide. I am not an overly big guy (I wear a 44 Long suit coat), but I always fill bunched up on regular drop bars that one would find stock on a road bike.

  6. Mike Myers says:

    Okay, here is a subject with which I am very familiar. Hand numbness can come from the hands and wrists, but it can also come from the shoulders.

    My first suggestion is to raise the bars. I know it may not look cool, but a high bar cockpit will take weight off the hands, and that helps.

    If the numbness is shoulder-related, a wider bar may help. Running a narrow bar puts the shoulder into anterior rotation, and that can cause an impingement, which causes numbness. My personal choice is the Nitto Noodle(mod. 177). I have 46cm Noodles on all my bikes, and it helps a lot.

    Changing position helps, too. I move my hands every 5 minutes or so—drops,ramp,flats,hoods and so on.

  7. rick says:

    As a certified bike fitter this is a subject that is very near and dear to me. In my experience the reason the vast majority of people experience numbness or pain in the hand area is because the buy and are sold bikes that are too big for them. The most critical measurement on a modern bike IMO is the length of the top tube. With sloping top tubes designs stand over height is very rarly an issue when chosing a bike. I’m 5’8″ yet there are bikes that have ample stand over clearance yet are clearly much too large for me.

    We have this huge muscle mass around our mid section of our bodies that can support us when we are doing activities like walking, running, bending down you name it. Our mid section keeps us upright yet on a bike people seem to think that two little spots on our hands are capable of supporting them without there being discomfort.

    Find someome to shake hands with and notice your elbows while shaking their hand. You have a natural bend in your arm at the elbow and it is a position someone could maintain for sometime. I believe a bike should be fit so that once you get to know your bike you can maintain a handshake position for an unlimited length of time. It feels natural to hold on to the bar. If you have to reach it’s no longer a hand shake position. You don’t shake someone hand while you arm is full extended. I don’t think it’s actually an issue of how low the bars are it’s how far away they are from you. Going low is more of a flexibility issue.

    As soon as you remove the weight from your hands/arms it tranfers to your core where it should be. One of the best side effects from cycling for me is a nice flat stomach. Ride your bike and remind yourself to shake hands with your bike and determine if it’s a natural postion for you. Be aware of your core muscles. If it’s not a natural fit generally you are riding a bike that is sized too big. I love riding bikes that fit like a glove.

  8. Mike Myers says:

    Rick—as the bar gets higher it gets closer, right?

  9. rick says:

    Mike absolutely.

  10. matthew booth says:

    @ Fritz –
    Thanks for the article I appreciate all the help I can get. I have the flat MTB style handlebars, when I have some time at lunch I will read Mike’s link on converting a MTB to drop style handle bars.

    Just to see a show of hands. Is it worth continuing to convert my mountain bike to a commuter, or just buy a road bike? I never mountain bike, not sure why I got this. It/’s Raliegh m50.

    I wasn’t sure if a conversion was worth it. And Rick brings up a good point. The bike I have now might not be a good fit. I should take it in to someone who can tell me how to adjust it for my height/weight.

  11. Blue says:

    I loved my road bike. However, I just got a recumbent a few months ago:

    focus suspended with understeering
    http://www.actionbent.com/

    and it is astronomically more comfortable.

    All the fitting considerations go away and you only need to determine your leg length (or “x-seam”).

    Instead of staring at the pavement, now I see way more of the sky.

    And somehow I have been transformed into this superstar celebrity that everyone notices rather than being run off the road.

    It was worth every penny.

  12. Kirk says:

    I second the recumbent recommendation. Since switching from a mountain bike for commuting to a recumbent I no longer have pain/numbness in the wrist groin and back areas. You are sitting in a much more relaxed position. When you get home from the ride, you don’t hurt, your legs are exercised, that is all.

  13. gear says:

    Strengthening your core muscles will allow you to use them to lift your upper body rather than putting all the weight of your upper body on your arms.

  14. rick says:

    The more strength I develope in my core and the more flexible I become going lower becomes more comfortable.

  15. Mark Layton says:

    I finally went with a custom frame to deal with numb hands and a sore neck. The result was a road bike with a more upright stance, with handlebars higher than the seat and a bit closer to the seat than most off-the-rack frames. It’s an expensive proposition, but once I got onto the new made-to-order bike – wow, what a difference in comfort. Working with a good bike shop who really listens to the customer and understands fit is a treat. Now have 2,600 miles on the new frame, and am really happy that I made the investment.
    Staying in one hand position too long can still create discomfort, so I try mix it up, switching between the hoods, drops, and cross-bar.

  16. matthew booth says:

    Hey Mark,
    It seems the answer to most pain is definitely a better fitting bike. I read an article where the author said most of the positioning and comfort on a bike involved a trade-off with power (a more upright stance gives less power versus a bent over position.
    If there is a dramatic increase in sales of old bikes (and newer) it would be interesting to see how many people buy or are sold bikes that are the wrong size.
    Sitting at a chair all day is hard enough on the back and neck, but then add a bike commute on the wrong bike! Ouch!

  17. Mark Layton says:

    Matthew -
    Given the relatively small number of frame sizes, and the trouble of traveling all around town to try different brands, I suspect that a large percentage of riders are on bikes with less than ideal geometry for their bodies. I’m a tad short-waisted, and was leaning too far forward, hence the shortened top tube on my model. The bike shop noted that many of their custom bike customers were Asian, many tending to a long-waisted build proportion. Those riders wanted a longer than standard top tube. None of us could find a good fit off the rack. It would be nice if a vendor could come up with a wider range of pre-engineered frame configurations that could be built to order at a price affordable to more riders. I’m very happy with my custom Lynskey frame, and I have friends with custom Lite Speeds and Sevens who also sing the praises of custom geometry, but the fact remains that very few riders can afford to go custom. If we want people to get serious about commuting and really using bikes as a more primary mode of transport, enhancing fit and comfort is probably as important as providing safe biking routes.

  18. matthew booth says:

    Im not sure if I buy into needing to have more choices for people to switch to bikes.

    In other countries people ride bikes everywhere and I’m almost 100% sure they aren’t having the bike fitted and customized to reduce strain on their lumbar.

    IMHO the it’s purely a mental thing that prevents people from riding bikes for more that recreation. People are taught to be consumers and to be efficient and get more done in less time.

    One thing I’ve noticed about riding my bike is that I’m less inclined to buy things because it would involve me riding my bike someplace and trying to figure out how to get it home… in other words I’m forced to evaluate whether its worth the effort.

    I’m also more relaxed and not in a hurry to get anywhere. I can only pedal so fast, whereas in my car the speedometer gives me the feeling that I could always be getting somewhere faster, quicker and maximizing my efficiency at getting things done.

    I think its more important to change people’s habits and thinking first… bikes can be adjusted to work for a time. Then when someone has changed their habits then they would see the value of spending more money on a quality bike that fit them better.

    With an increase in choices I would fear a decrease in quality.

  19. matthew booth says:

    sorry about the grammar and spelling mistakes above…

  20. tamara says:

    Any advice for me. I am a relatively new rider who was custom fitted a road touring bicycle. I was borrowing my boyfriend’s flat bas and the touring bicycle has drop bars. I don’t know if they fitted me incorrectly, but within 30 minutes, my right wrist is in so much pain i can hardley continue. I do change positions on the bars themselves, but that doesn’t seem to help. do i need to do something different with my posture? am i holding my arms wrong? should i try a different drop bar? is the bicycle too small? please advise. I would love to take long tours, which is why the touring bicycle, but right now, i don’t think i could ride more than 2 hours without severe pain in my wrist.

  21. Quinn says:

    Tamara-

    are your wrists in pain on your boyfriends flatbar or when you return to your dropbars?

  22. tamara says:

    my wrists were not sore on his flatbars at all. so when i tried putting my hands on the flat part of the drop bars to no avail.

  23. Quinn says:

    Tamara-

    stock flat bars are always wider than drop bars- 2 options- a 44cm (widest) dropbar, OR Dirt Drops- Origin8 Gary, WTB Dirt Drop.

    or just convert to flatbar

  24. tamara says:

    Thanks Quinn. I will definitely check them out.

  25. mike says:

    I moved my seat forward and that helped with the wrist pain a lot.

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