Cycling can wreak havoc on our wrists. Long days in the saddle are often felt through a tingling in the hands and fingers, and while these sensations will likely subside after rest, continuing to cycle can lead to further damage and potentially cause numbness, weakness and even pain.
It can be very inconvenient to have to stop and rest for a few days while bike touring — often, you have x amount of time to cover x amount of miles — so it’s best to prevent numb hands from occurring altogether. This article will look at exactly what it is about cycling that causes numb hands and what can be done to prevent it from happening.
What causes numb hands in cyclists?
There are two main causes of numb hands in cyclists: cyclist palsy and carpal tunnel syndrome. Both are the result of a nerve being compressed for long periods of time. The position of our hands while holding the handlebar puts pressure on the nerves in our wrists, which, combined with vibrations from the road, is enough to cause damage.
Cyclist palsy (also called handlebar palsy): This occurs when the ulnar nerve is damaged and leads to numbness on the outer side of your hand, such as in your little finger and ring finger.
Carpal tunnel syndrome: This occurs when the median nerve is damaged and leads to numbness on the inner side of your hand, such as your thumb, index finger and middle finger.
While we cannot do much about the fact that we must hold our handlebars while our bike moves along, there are things that can exacerbate the pressure on our wrists and contribute to cyclist palsy and carpal tunnel syndrome:
- Poor posture or fatigue, which can lead to increased body weight on the hands
- Improper bike fit, such as a downward tilted saddle forcing more body weight onto the hands
- Not changing hand position on the handlebar frequently enough
- Wearing poor-quality gloves
- Using poor-quality handlebar padding
- Incorrect shape or size of the handlebar
It’s also important to note that the longer the ride, the longer pressure is applied, and the rougher the terrain, the rougher the vibrations on the wrist.
How to prevent numb hands while bike touring
While long-distance cyclists are prone to numbness in their hands, there are some steps that can be taken to help reduce the likelihood of contracting cyclist palsy or carpal tunnel syndrome.
Ensure your bike fits correctly to allow for good posture
If you’re going to be cycling for several hours per day, it’s essential that your bike is suited to your height and measurements, and is comfortable to ride for long periods of time.
There are a number of things that can cause you to tilt forward in the saddle, which will put lots of body weight onto your hands and wrists. And this — you guessed it — can lead to compressed nerves.
If your handlebars are low in relation to your saddle, or if your saddle is positioned downwards, you’ll be tilting forward. Similarly, if your saddle is positioned too far back, you’ll be reaching to grip the bars. With handlebars that are closer to you and positioned higher up, more weight is borne by your backside rather than your hands.
Road cyclists prefer to lean forward in the saddle for aerodynamic purposes, but for long bike tours, this is not a sustainable position to ride in. Consider switching your cycling posture to a more upright one, so that pressure is alleviated from your hands and wrists.
Ensure your handlebar setup allows for multiple hand positions
Drop bars or butterfly bars are arguably the best handlebar choices for touring, as they have multiple options for hand placement. This is crucial because leaving your hands in one place almost guarantees numb fingers.
Flat bars, on the other hand, only provide one option for hand placement, which means your hands will be fixed into the same position day after day. If you must tour with flat bars — perhaps you’ll be going very off-road, for example — I recommend putting wings onto the end of your bars. This means you’ll now have an additional hand position to utilise.
You’ll also want to ensure that the padding on your handlebars is of high quality, so that there is adequate cushioning and protection from vibrations.
Keep your hands and wrists moving
It’s important to not keep your hands fixed in one position for long periods of time. As I mentioned before, the position of our hands while holding the handlebar puts pressure on the nerves in our wrists — it’s important to alleviate that pressure frequently.
Remember to change the position of your hands often throughout the day. For example, if you’re using drop bars, switch between riding on the hoods, on the drops and on the tops. If you must use flat bars, ensure they have wings so that you can switch between the bars and the wings.
I also take one hand off the handlebar every so often to stretch it and move it around, such as circling my wrists and wiggling my fingers.
Wear high-quality gloves
Cycling gloves are designed to not only protect your palms from getting scraped up if you fall, but also to provide comfort while riding. Consider wearing gloves with thick padding or gel inserts — some are also ergonomically designed to make a channel where nerves pass through the wrist into the heel of the hand. If you’re a long-distance cyclist, I really recommend that you don’t scrimp on the gloves.
My experience with cycling-induced carpal tunnel syndrome
I contracted a mild case of carpal tunnel syndrome during my London to Istanbul cycle tour. After a particularly long and bumpy day’s ride through a forest in Germany, I noticed that the thumb, index and middle finger on my left hand were numb. I didn’t give it much thought and ignored it, expecting it to be gone by morning. When I woke up, the numbness had indeed gone, so I got back on my bike and enjoyed another long day in the saddle.
That evening, I noticed the numbness had returned with a vengeance and was now accompanied by weakness. I struggled to open the cap of a milk bottle and found that I couldn’t grip or squeeze with any force. A fellow camper happened to be a doctor and told me that it sounded very much like carpal tunnel syndrome — something which is common in long-distance cyclists.
I’m quite confident that touring with flat bars contributed to my carpal tunnel syndrome. Flat bars only provide one option for hand placement, which meant my hands were fixed into one position day after day. I also hadn’t worn my gloves for a few days at this point because they had gotten wet and I was waiting to wash them. My gloves were high-quality with gel padding, and they had probably been giving me some level of protection up until that point.
I took 4 days off from cycling and the numbness went away. As I continued my tour, I always wore my gloves and made an effort to take one hand off the handlebar to move my wrist and fingers around every 20 minutes or so. This seemed to help, as the numbness did not return.
I have also since added wings onto the end of my bars and upgraded the padding, so I now have two hand placement options and better shock protection. I’m hoping in the future to purchase a touring bike with butterfly bars (I simply hate drop bars) so that I can utilise even more hand positions.
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