Do your hands go numb when you’re cycling? In the RBR reader survey a few weeks ago, painful or numb hands was the third most frequent problem cited – afflicting 16% of you as your main physical issue on the bike. (While it may not be main issue for most of us, hand pain or, especially, numbness, happens to almost all of us from time to time.)
I have a cyclist client, Sam, who had completed a series of brevets (200 km / 125 miles, 300 km / 187 miles, 400 km / 250 miles and 600 km / 375 miles). He developed numbness, also known as cyclist’s palsy, and actually damaged his nerves (neuropathy). It took a year of barely riding for his nerves to heal and to recover from the neuropathy. After he could ride again, I started coaching him.
Physiology Behind Hand Pain Numbness While Bicycling
Nerve compression of one of the two nerves in the wrist is usually the culprit.
- Ulnar nerve — If you’re getting numbness in your little and ring fingers, it’s probably this one being compressed. This is the most common due to its location, at the bottom of the wrist, close to the bars and hoods of a road bike.
- Median nerve — If the index, middle, and ring fingers to feel numb, it’s probably this nerve, which runs in the middle of the wrist. This tends to be more problematic on a mountain bike. It’s also called carpal tunnel syndrome.
Although one is more likely to afflict roadies and the other MTBers, they aren’t mutually exclusive.
Riding Technique is Key to Preventing Hand Numbness
The compression usually comes from thepositions of the hand and wrist and/or pressure on the handlebars. The more your wrist is bent, the more likely you are to have tingling and potentially numb fingers.
You can reduce or eliminate the compression through better technique. You have five different hand positions on the bars, which vary in terms of how bent your wrists are:
- Tops – near the stem. Your wrists are very cocked in this position.
- Bend in the bars — just outside of the tops. Depending on your exact grip, your wrists are also relatively bent here.
- Brake hoods — Your wrists are fairly straight, although this depends on where the brakes are on your bars.
- The hooks, or bends underneath the brake hoods — again, your wrists are pretty bent unless you are crouched very low.
- The drops — Your wrists will be more or less bent depending on how low your bars are and how far they are away from the saddle.
On the hoods is the best position — I use a variation I learned years ago from a pro. Instead of my thumbs on the inside of the brake hoods and my hands on the outside of the hoods, the hoods are between my index and second fingers. My wrists are much straighter and more comfortable. Some riders think this isn’t safe since you can’t grab the brakes as fast. This has never been a problem for me over 40 years of defensive riding.
However, riding on the hoods may not be comfortable if your bike isn’t fitted correctly; for example, if your bars are too far away (your reach is too great) or too low.
Learn the positions in which your wrists are the straightest.
Although #3 is the best position:
- the key to preventing compression of the nerves is to vary your hands among the five positions.
I’ve developed the habit of changing positions literally every few minutes among all five of the positions, although I primarily use #3 and #5 (in the drops), in which my wrists are the straightest.
Make it a habit yourself to switch positions regularly!
Compression of the nerves can also come from the weight of your upper body on the bars. Lon Haldeman advises that your hands should rest lightly on the bars just like they do when typing or playing the piano! It also helps to ride with “soft” elbows.
Solving Hand Numbness: Equipment Plays a Role, Too
Even if you change your hand positions frequently, you’re still exerting pressure on your hands against the bars, and on a longer ride the cumulative effect may cause problems. Here are some suggestions:
- The more rake and the higher the spoke count of your wheels, the more the bike absorbs any road shock.
- Depending on the position of the bars relative to the saddle, more or less of your weight will be on the bars.
- Padded bars can also dampen road shock. There are numerous gel tapes and others with a bit of built-in cushion available. You can also add your own: For padding, use foam that will compress a little, but springs back to shape. I use foam sold for insulating water pipes. You only need to pad the parts of the bars where your hands rest, not the underside of the bars. And, in some cases, depending on the size of your bars, you may need to use 4 rolls of tape rather than the usual 2 rolls to get full coverage.
- Padded gloves may also help, although they’re sometimes hard to find.
- Ken Bonner, who has ridden over 50 1200 km (750-mile) events, rides without gloves! On longer rides, hands (and feet) often swell, and the gloves themselves can compress the nerves. I sometimes take my gloves off while climbing, when more of my weight is on my butt.
The key is to get a good bike fit. If hand pain / numbness is a chronic problem, try padding as well.
Core Strength Simplified
Every roadie I know is pressed for time to work out, and core strength exercises are often skipped to make time to ride. Here’s how to strength your core without adding workout time once you learn how to engage your core.
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In order for your hands to rest lightly on the bars, you need to have a strong core to support your upper body. You have two sets of abdominal muscles. The fibers in the surface muscles run up and down your abdomen — think six-pack abs (which almost none of us ever had, let alone as we age).
Your deeper core muscles are underneath the surface muscles. The fibers in your core muscles run horizontally around your trunk, forming a girdle around your core that supports your upper body weight so that your hands can rest lightly on the bars. The core muscles hold your back in neutral, the flat back described in last week’s column on upper back, shoulder and neck pain. These muscles provide a stable platform to anchor your leg muscles so that you produce more power.
The action of the core muscles working is subtle. Here’s how to find them. Lie on your back on the floor with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Rest your fingers tips on the soft tissues just inside your pelvic bones. Then pull your navel in so that your abdomen becomes flat or even concave. Here are several ways to visualize engaging your deeper core muscles:
- Imagine that you are pulling your belly button down to your anus.
- Imagine that you are tightening the muscles around your bladder and sphincter.
- Imagine that you are trying to make yourself thinner to slip sideways among people in a crowded room.
- Imagine that you are pulling on a tight pair of jeans.
Now that you’ve found your core muscles, spend a just a few minutes daily for a week practicing activating those muscles so that your abdomen becomes flat.
We spend way too much time sitting at home, at work and in the car. Even in the most ergonomic chair, you’re not using your core muscles. To strengthen them just sit up straight away from the chair back and pull your abdomen in. Do this for about 5 minutes every hour or two. I sit on an exercise ball — to keep the ball stable, I have to use my core muscles.
On the bike, practice engaging your core and flattening your back. Can you rest your hands lightly on the bars? You’ve got it!
Practice core training made simple! Make it a habit, just like switching positions on the bar.
The Lesson Learned from Sam
Because numb or tingling hands can get worse if not nipped in the bud, and persist off the bike in your daily life — prevention is vital. The problem cost my client Sam a year of riding.
While he was off the bike, Sam diligently worked on strengthening his core. When his neuropathy was finally healed and he started riding again — no numb fingers! He successfully completed the full brevet series and the 1200 km (750-mile) Paris-Brest-Paris.
The lesson is to address the problem through a combination of improved riding technique (regularly moving your hand placement on the bars), a proper fit and equipment, and keeping your core strong. Doing so will keep the issue from getting worse if it is already bothersome, and will help keep it from ever becoming an issue if you’re one of us who gets tingly only on occasion.
Next week, in our ongoing Aches and Pains Series, I’ll address Lower Back Pain / Discomfort.
What Else Hurts?
The Question of the Week we posed was, “What is the Biggest or Most Common Physical Issue that Affects Your Riding?” RBR readers responded:
- Saddle Discomfort / Saddle Sores – 135 votes, 20.5%
- Upper Back, Shoulder, Neck Pain / Discomfort – 115 votes, 16.8%
- Numb / Painful Hands – 108 votes, 15.9%
- Something Else – 97 votes, 14.6%
- Lower Back Pain / Discomfort – 77 votes, 11.5%
- Cramps – 74 votes, 11.0%
- Hot / Painful Feet – 62 votes, 9.1%
- Nausea – 3 votes
If you answered Something Else, we’d like to know what that is. Please post a Comment below this article in the Newsletter to let us know. Thanks!
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written over 40 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.
One other possibility that seems to be the biggest contributor to hands going numb … A too tight jersey which constricts the blood veins under the arms (arm pit) is usually to blame. The axillary vein basically feeds most of the arm.
I have found that by tipping the hoods 15 – 20 degrees to the inside provides a less painful position for the wrists and combine it with moving between the 5 positions noted in the article can relieve some painful miles
Gary MacAskill says
Since I tipped the hoods on my bike 15 degrees to the inside, my wrists are comfortable. I no longer feel undue pressure of the hoods against my index fingers. Some riders don’t like the look of canted in hoods but you get used to it. I have noticed recently that some European pros are doing this, too. Maybe we will see handlebar design change.
John Marsh says
I actually have a buddy, just a big guy, who sometimes has the cut the inside of the cuff on his short-sleeve jerseys that are too tight. Basically, just a snip directly below the armpit. Works for him!
Tom Riley says
In recent years, on rides lasting three hours or more, my triceps begin to complain loudly. I’ve strengthened my triceps by laying on my back, upper arms vertical, holding dumbells in my hands and extending my forearms from horizontal to vertical. While riding I try to stretch them out when they start to get sore.
Could this be a positioning problem in which I am supporting too much weight with my arms? I never ride with locked elbows, and I change hand positions fairly often.
Perhaps the biggest problem with numb hands is the saddle being too far forward, even by just 5 mm. (Bike fitter Steve Hogg had info about this on his blog.) If you feel a lot of pressure on your hands, move the saddle 5 mm rearward at a time, until you get to the point that “your hands rest lightly on the bars.” (You may need a post with more setback!)
Jill Kaufman says
Thumbs – It’s taken years, but I finally have a bike with thumb shifting, and while I love the convenience, my thumbs become numb, and then sore after a long ride or a multi-day ride. How do I strengthen this area to prevent it?
Nat Watson says
I’m 61. In 2015 I did a lot of long distances, including Paris-Brest-Paris. Ever since then I’ve had partial numbness in my feet and toes. All the time. I guess some nerve is being squeezed somewhere, but I’ve yet to find out where. Thanks!
Joel Spencer says
Nat, I had a similar problem that was solved by switching shoes. I now ride with the older style of Keen cycling sandals which sadly are no longer made. The Keens have a wide toe box but a normal size heal cup. They are not “roadie” wear and are heavy, but my feet don’t hurt. I tried other brands of shoes in a “wide” width, but the wide toe box had a wide heel cup as well and just did not work out. I have a search on eBay that alerts me when a pair is for sale.
Make sure the headset on your bicycle is as snug as it can be without binding. Any road vibration will be amplified in the handlebar if there is even the slightest play. Also, try a wider front tire and/or less pressure in the front tire to help absorb vibration
Joel Spencer says
I have a hand problem that is being caused by arthritic hands. The pain in my hands is part of my everyday life and not restricted to cycling. It has become uncomfortable/painful to apply the pressure to the caliper brakes on my lovely (old) Ritchey Ti-carbon Breakaway. The current calipers/levers are the newer Ultegra 11 speed so this is not a problem with aging equipment. My solution was to buy a new bike with hydraulic disc brakes which require far less hand pressure. I searched, but found no options to improve the breaking on my Ritchey. I would love to hear any ideas that would improve the breaking
Gary Keene says
Thanks for spreading the word on this. I never had problems until I damaged my hands doing extensive trail work and lumber-jacking (chainsawing) after a wildfire in our mountains. It got so bad I kept a cooler full of ice in the bathroom, and when I woke up in the night with my arms feeling like hot lava had replaced the blood, I’d plunge them in the ice. Not good!
That finally got me to the doctor and a diagnosis of carpal tunnel syndrome. There are specific therapies to address this (most available on-line), and thankfully they worked for me. But, like any over-use injury, I remain sensitive and susceptible to re-injury; that’s were all of the techniques described in your article come into play. So they are both preemptive and rehabilitative and definitely worth every cyclist’s attention.
Robert Buschman says
The biggest problem with hand pain and numbness is that you are supporting your upper body weight on your hands and wrists for prolonged periods of time. They aren’t designed for that. For long distances you can pad your gloves and bars as much as you can stand but if you don’t reduce the weight on your hands it makes little difference. Two good options exist. You can raise your handlebars, which reduces pressure on the hands and straightens out the curve in your low back and neck. Another good way to shift your upper body weight is to put it on your elbows. Get aerobars. Mount them on the raised handlebars so you don’t have to flex way forward in TT position, stressing the neck and back. The position you dialed in at a fitting might be more appropriate for a couple of hours but if you’re doing 10+ hour brevets you need to sit up more. Two more comments: good core strength helps you hold a forward position with good posture rather than leaning on your hands, and a shock absorbing system (fork or stem) reduces a lot of the vibrations that also contribute to nerve irritation and general banging around on the bars.
Marc Gellman says
Please address numbness in the thumb, and particularly when it is not related to wrist position but might be coming from neck muscles. Some of the neck muscle issues were addressed in the previous weeks column. That column was excellent and I have shared it with my DPT.
Dick R. says
I used to have problems with my hands getting numb. It seemed intuitive to get gloves with more padding. None of the padded gloves worked, even as I increased the amount of padding. Finally, I decided to try no padding, I used a pair of leather gloves that are made for weight lifting. Viola!! The days of hand numbness appear to be gone forever!
Brian Nystrom says
John, I don’t understand the comment about spoke count in the front wheel. It makes no difference in shock absorption, as wheels absorbing significant amounts of shock is a myth that unfortunately won’t die. At most. a rim may deflect a millimeter or so – and typically much less – which is insignificant compared to the deflection of the tires. Tire pressure is the key to softening the front end, with the addition of bar padding if necessary.
Fork RAKE taken in isolation doesn’t necessarily make any difference, but fork STIFFNESS definitely does. You can make a stiff fork with a fair amount of rake or a soft fork without much rake (I’ve owned one of the latter). The problem is that flexible forks make for imprecise handling and increase potential for high-speed wobble. I’ve experienced that enough to know I never want to again.
Fork rake is selected to create specific handling characteristics, not for compliance. Forks with large amounts of rake are used on bikes with shallow head angles in order to maintain the correct amount of trail for good handling. The combination of a shallow head angle and a large amount of fork rake may add a degree of compliance, but it still depends on how stiff the frame and fork are.
Don Macrae says
My impression is that wheels can make a huge difference – based on a recent experience. I swap between two road bikes, one a Tarmac with 32 mm Roval carbon wheels, the other my B2, a carbon framed Planet X frame and with Hed allow wheels. The Tarmac feels rigid and unforgiving, while B2 feels compliant and responsive and comfortable. I thought the difference was in the frames. But then..I broke a front wheel spoke on the front Hed of B2, and as a temporary measure I fitted a 50mm carbon wheel I had lying about. The result was instant discomfort. B2 suddenly felt unyielding. I don’t consider that I’m very sensitive to changing bike characteristics, but this was pronounced. Same tyre, by the way. All subjective of couse, so FWIW..
Madhusudan B Jani says
> Tight grips on handle bar obstructs the blood circulation. Blood circulation needs terminal veins and capillaries to remain semi constricted so that blood moves back to heart. Blood from mid portions of the ( hand in tight hand grips ) cant circulate back. Blood flow becomes stagnant and onward problems are increased.
> Stem handle bar extender as per requirement can solve the problems . Let the hand grips be possibly loose so that blood returns back to heart and removes metabolites.. Raising the handle bar may increase air resistance but physical problems can be reduced.
> I use handle bar extender since 10 years.. It helps me lot.
> Leaning forward and tightening the hand grips increased the problems.
> My suggestions may not suit to long distance riders and for tournaments .but can help the lifestyles related cyclists
Steven Braanfman says
I find it hard to believe that you never mention the possibility of carpel tunnel syndrome.. All of the strategies and adjustments to hand position and fit are valid and can result in achieving comfort. However, carpel tunnel syndrome Is a serious condition that presents itself as numbness, tingling, and other forms of wrist, hand and finger discomfort and pain and these symptoms should not be ignored medically. I speak from experience having had carpel tunnel surgery on both hands.
Don Macrae says
The article mentions CPT under the heading of ‘Median nerve’, “one of the two nerves in the wrist [that] is usually the culprit”.
You have my sympathy though, I have known people whose very careers were damaged by CPT.