Last week RBR reader David W. asked: After about 30 minutes of riding, my hands get so numb and tingly that I can’t shift gears. My handlebar is level with the saddle. Can you help? — David W.
In the reader survey last week tingling and numb fingers and hands were the most common ache or pain while riding. Here are some additional suggestions:
Strong core. Reader Kerry Irons commented on the importance of a strong core. Your hands should rest lightly on the bars like you are typing, which means your core supports your upper body. Strengthening your core doesn’t mean sit-ups or crunches. These only strengthen the surface muscles that run up and down your abdomen. You need to strengthen the deeper muscles that run around your abdomen to form a stabilizing girdle. Two pages on my website describe and illustrate progressive core strength programs.
Soft elbows. Riding with slightly bent instead of locked elbows helps to lessens the load of your upper body on your hands when you riding over something rough.
Move hands frequently. Don’t wait until your fingers start to tingle. All of the time you are riding, every few minutes move your hands among five different positions: tops just outside the stem, bends outside the tops, brake hoods, hooks just under the hoods and the drops.
Practice. The above don’t come naturally; they need to become habits. Before you start a ride pick one to work on and consciously pay attention to it. Riding the trainer is a great opportunity, especially to see if you are riding with a strong core.
Bike design. An aluminum frame is stiff and transfers more road shock to your hands. Road shock is also increased by: a straight fork rather than one with some rake, radial spoked wheels vs. cross 2 or cross 3 laced wheels, 23 mm tires pumped hard vs. wider tires at lower pressure. Sure, radially spoked wheels with deep rims are marginally more aerodynamic and skinny, hard tires have less rolling resistance but neither of those matters if your limiter is your hands.
Specific cause. Cyclist’s palsy is tingling or numbness in the ring and little fingers. It’s caused by pressure on the ulnar nerve, which results from riding with your wrist bent and angled toward your thumb. Carpal tunnel syndrome is tingling or numbness in the thumb and forefinger and is caused by pressure on the median nerve. This can result from riding on the hoods with your wrist cocked and angled toward your little finger.
Too tight gloves. Try gloves one size larger, especially if you’re switching to gloves with more padding.
Medical attention. Because your hands get numb and tingly after only 30 minutes you may have a chronic injury. See your doctor.
Non-cycling (partial) cause. Cyclist’s palsy can be caused by pressure on the ulnar nerve on the inside of the elbow. Carpal tunnel syndrome can result from hand position while typing.
Post ride heat. Because the cause is compression a heading pad after a ride may relieve but not solve the problem.
We understand and accept pain caused by the exertion of riding like the buildup of lactic acid. But we shouldn’t have to put up with things like cramps and pain in the pressure points: saddle sores, numb hands and hot feet.
During the off-season you have time to solve these problems that can make riding no fun and may even cause you to quit a ride or even worse have to take time off the bike. Here are three resources:
Butt, Hands, Feet.
My eBook Preventing and Treating Pain in Cycling’s Pressure Points describes the multiple possible causes of pain in each of these pressure points, the different things you can do to prevent them, and what to do if you have a problem.
Butt, Hands, Feet is $4.99.
My eBook Cramping explains the causes, what to do to prevent cramps and has photos illustrating what to do if one locks up your leg. Cramping is $4.99.
Stop Cycling’s Showstoppers.
My comprehensive eBook, Stop Cycling’s Showstoppers, covers pressure points, cramping, nutritional problems, training errors, weather like heat, cold and rain, discouragement and equipment problems. Showstoppers is $14.95.
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.
Kerry A Irons says
The comments about aluminum frames and straight forks being stiff are simply wrong. Aluminum frames, just like steel, titanium, and CF frames can be as stiff or flexible as the designers make them. Tube diameter, tube wall thickness, tube shape, butting and reinforcing, etc. all affect frame and fork stiffness. It’s true that some very stiff frames have been made from aluminum. It is also true that some of the most flexible frames ever made have been built with aluminum.
Peter Archbold says
Tire size should be a personal choice based on comfort, control and safety.
A bigger road bike tire (at least the Continental GP 4000 and GP 5000) provides a lower rolling resistance at the same air pressure. You do have to realize that at the same air pressure, a bigger tire will provide a less comfortable ride.
At the 15% tire drop air pressures, which are very close to the recommended air pressures for a given size, the tables are turned and a bigger road bike tire will have a higher rolling resistance. The higher rolling resistance of the bigger tire is because it provides more comfort at the 15% tire drop air pressure.
We feel the ultimate test is adjusting all tires to the same comfort level. When all tires are adjusted to the same comfort level, rolling resistance is nearly the same (0.2 watts max) for all sizes of the GP 5000.
We now feel picking the right size tire is more a matter of looking at what level of comfort (and grip) is required. At some point, a smaller tire isn’t able to provide the same comfort level (and grip) as its bigger counterpart because it will start bottoming out.
If you want to go as fast as possible, choose your required comfort level and pick the smallest tire that can provide that comfort for you.
Doug Kirk says
Even the slightest looseness in the headset bearings will allow tiny vibrations in the handlebar that can cause/aggravate numb hands. Tighten the headset just as snug as you can while still allowing the fork to turn freely under its own weight if you pick up the front of the bike (by the frame, not the bars) and lean it over to one side.
If your hands go numb, your bike is too long for you. Get another with shorter reach
Andrew B says
I got back into bicycle riding about 10 years ago when I started having issues with my Achilles tendons during runs. Soon after I started riding, and my miles were increasing, I started to get the numb & tingly hands. No matter what I did, and I did most of the things mentioned above, including a good bike fit. At about 10-15 miles the hands would start to get numb & tingle, fast, slow, flat, or hills, it didn’t matter. One day I came to the conclusion that my longish hands just didn’t have a lot of meat on them, good gloves helped but didn’t quite solve the issue. So I double wrapped the bars (drop bars) and just like that, no more numb or tingly hands! This helps two ways, in addition to the thicker padding, the larger diameter helps spread the pressure out over a larger surface area. May not be everyone’s solution, but it worked for me!
Joel Spencer says
I read this topic with interest and noticed that no one mentioned placement of the hoods as a possible source of hand pain. While the handlebar may be at the correct height, the position of the hoods/shifter on the bar can cause numbness and pain in the wrists and hands. In my case the hoods were placed such that I rode with slight bend in my wrist “upward” or toward my body. The test to see if this was a problem was to loosen the front cap on the stem and rotate the handlebar forward to a position where the forearm and hands are aligned both left and right and also “up and down”. Several iterations of slight adjustments brought me to a position that greatly improved my problems with hand pain and numbness.
Hood placement would fall under the topic of a bike fit. All of my current bikes are “home built” so it is I who has made this error and a bike fit would certainly identify such a miss step. In my defense, my builds were never a problem when I was younger, had more cartilage in my joints, and was more supple :-).
After most of my 6 PBP’s, I’ve had nerve damage in my fingers, with time it tends to heal, but a good masseuse who knows about the Ulnar Nerve, can do wonders, and has been able to resolve much of the damage in weeks, rather than the months it would take to leave it to heal itself.
I’ve worked in bike shops for over 30 years… this problem is usually caused by saddle angle. Most people think that having a saddle nose down will relieve pressure. Not so, that’s what causes the problem. Your weight is pushed forward on to the bars, putting way too much pressure on your hands.
I set this up for a woman years ago… she did not believe me. I asked kindly to “just try it”. And with amazement, she had a big smile on her face and said, “That does help!”
So… level your saddle. No nose down… I ride mine about 1 degree nose up. That puts your weight on the back of the saddle and less pressure on your hands.
This is assuming no medical issues or other bike setup problems.
Richard Rogers says
My gloves wore out and my new ones had a little more padding but I didn’t realize it. When I started to have numbness problems I tried to solve the problem with fancier, more heavily padded gloves. The problem got worse. Finally, against my better judgment and out of frustration I tried using a pair of unpadded work out gloves. Viola, the problem totally disappeared!!
Tim Rueger says
Things that helped my wrist/palm issues: 1) neutral wrist position 2) gel pads under thick-ish bar tape 3) Specialized “Grail” gloves.
Grail gloves have a pad under the center of the palm, much like arch supports in shoes, that helps spread pressure evenly over the whole hand surface. They work great for me, might be worth a try if you’re frustrated with other solutions.
Greg Titus says
What a bunch of useful suggestions! One cause that wasn’t specifically mentioned is the possibility of cervical vertebral stenosis. This can compromise the nerves that supply the hands. If you’ve tried all the standard solutions and it still doesn’t help, consider an evaluation of your cervical spine. I don’t have hard facts on it, but I bet it’s more common than most people think.
Jerry Halperin says
I have had an ongoing problem with numbness, tingling, and significant loss of feeling in my fight hand. So bad that when I get home I can barely push the buttons on my garage door opener.
A solution I have found that works for me is to wear 2 pair of gloves. When I do I infrequently have any of the issues noted above.
Big Ring Bob says
A wise sage of cycling commented one day that when your hands hurt, make sure you aren’t pinching your ears with your shoulders. When we become fatigued, one of the bodies reaction is to hunch your shoulders and “squeeze your ears” as you ride. When I find my hands starting to tingle, I try to change my posture by dropping my shoulders. This, with slightly flexed elbows, causes a light touch on the handlebars and voila, the pain disappears. Again, this is just one way to engage your core more completely.
Gary Keene says
All good info, thx. I’d add this: causes of the problem may be outside cycling or combined with cycling become cumulative and problematic = I’m also a motorcyclist, and there are lots of “fix-its” for hand numbness there caused by gripping a (vibrating) throttle = creates impact. Also, trail-building and heavier garden work = lots of gripping of shovels, McLeods, etc. stresses and bruises my hands, the ulnar nerve, etc. = shows up as numbness, tingling on the bike. Like any repetitive stress injury, the baseline solution is to dial it back, give it a chance to (hopefully) recover, and make good use of all the other advice listed here.
Donald D Dickson says
“skinny, hard tires have less rolling resistance” – research done by Jan Heine shows wider, lower pressure tires are just as fast
Jim Hannah says
Been riding about 5k miles/year for over 40 years (where did the time go?), but developed severe hand numbness over the last year, probably due to increased post retirement riding. Switched to a handlebar with backswept top, similar to an airplane wing with about 95% improvement in symptoms. The bar I use is Eyropro from Australia, but a very similar bar is sold as Coefficient in the US. The theory is the change in angle reduces ulnar nerve compression at the elbow,. Worked for me.