Spending hours on the bike is sure to cause some aches and pains, but dealing with numb fingers or pain in the wrists shouldn’t be part of the equation. While solving this issue can be somewhat complicated, a trip to your primary care physician or another specialist who doesn’t quite understand the complexities of cycling might not solve the problem.
Instead of a prescription for time off the bike, start by getting to the root of the problem. Recently we got together with the International Bike Fitting Institute president and cycling biomechanist Andy Brooke to discuss the likely culprit of hand and wrist issues and what you can do to fix it for good.
Any time you’re experiencing numbness in any part of the body that’s caused from cycling, alarm bells are sure to sound. While some issues may be a bigger deal than others, before you start experimenting with common solutions for hand or wrist problems, it’s important to understand why numbness is occurring in the first place.
“The main reason is pressure on the hands, resulting in compression of the nerves,” Brooke says. “The nerves commonly affected are the ulnar nerve in the heel of the hand, and the median nerve in the fleshy part of the palm below the thumb. Too much pressure on the heel of the hand results in the little and ring fingers going numb, while too much pressure on the other side of the palm can lead to numbness through the thumb, forefinger and middle finger.”
While the aggressive, forward position on a road bike can indeed place more pressure on the hands and ultimately your nerves, the flat bars common on hybrid and mountain bikes can cause similar issues, too. Brooke says this is likely due to excessive wrist extension.
“With a straight handlebar, there can also be a risk of the wrist extending too much, causing similar issues to carpal tunnel syndrome. Those with a history of carpal tunnel issues should consider installing ergonomic grips with a flat area to support the heel of the hand and prevent excessive wrist extension.”
One of the more popular beliefs is that changing up your equipment to reduce road vibration can reduce symptoms. But according to Brooke, these small changes are unlikely to solve the underlying issue.
“Road vibration is unlikely to play a huge factor,” Brooke says. “There are a couple of cheap solutions that might help improve comfort a little, like gel inserts that go under the bar tape, or wider tires run at a lower psi, but these are unlikely to make a difference when the root cause is excessive weight on the hands. If your bike is set up so that your hands are lightly resting on the bars, with a bend in your elbow and your shoulders relaxed, then road bumps and vibrations should be absorbed through your arms, limiting the pummeling your hands take.”
Even though the issue is in the hands, the underlying cause, as Brooke points out, is likely further up the chain. How you hold the handlebar and how frequently you change hand positions can certainly help to alleviate some of the symptoms, but to solve the problem long-term, you’ll need to figure out why a majority of your bodyweight is being placed on the hands instead of on the saddle. This is where your position on the bike begins to play a factor.
“Weight on the hands is a complex issue and not as simple as just moving your weight backward or raising your handlebars,” Brooke says. “There are two types of adjustment that can help here. First, any adjustment that makes you sit more upright can be a good thing. This includes using a shorter stem to bring the handlebars closer to the saddle or raising the height of the handlebar. If you imagine sitting down and leaning forward, the further forward you reach, the harder it is to sustain. If you go beyond a point that’s sustainable, that results in putting weight through your hands. Anything that makes you sit up a little more should help.”
Aside from bringing the handlebars closer, the position of your saddle can make a difference, too. But surprisingly, you may not need to bring the saddle forward to solve your issues.
“There’s a directional force component to this that’s a bit complicated but it’s important,” Brooks says. “If you push against something, it resists you. Think of that resistance as it pushes back. If your saddle is too far forward, when you push down on the pedals the force is pretty much vertical. So, the pedals are pushing back vertically up, which doesn’t really help you. If you move your seat back a little or just think about pushing forward and away from you when pedaling, the resistance from the pedals will be more rearward.
“This should help keep you back in the saddle and keep weight off the hands. There’s a simple exercise you can do at home to prove this. Stand with your back against the wall and slowly bend forward at the waist until your bum loses contact with the wall. Now step forward around about four inches and repeat the bending. You should be able to bend further without losing contact with the wall. You’ll probably find that the position is more sustainable as well. It’s all because you’ve changed the direction of the forces, called ground reaction forces, under your feet. Now they’re pushing you back into the wall and making it easier to support your upper body weight with your core muscles.”
Reducing weight on the hands and wrist can be solved most of the time by correcting your position on the bike. However, this isn’t a solution for everyone, and some may find weakness in the body can also play a role. If you’ve seen a bike fitter and have a good position dialed in, you may want to look at improving flexibility and the overall strength of your core.
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“When you look at professional riders, they can hold their body stable while taking their hands off the bars completely and reaching back into their jersey pocket for a bar or gel. There are two reasons it’s easier for pros than the rest of us. They’re often carrying much less upper-body weight so their cores don’t have to work as hard, and they’re pushing down on the pedals with a lot more force, so the pedals are providing more resistance making it much easier for them to keep their weight back and off the bars,” Brooke says. “This is one of the main reasons new cyclists get numb hands when they first start riding but it eases after a few months — they get fitter, maybe lose a little weight but definitely push down on the pedals harder, which helps to reduce weight on their hands.”
To help improve core strength, Brooke recommends focusing on functional strength specific to the injury or problem you’re dealing with.