Causes and Solutions to Numb Hands While Riding a Bicycle

Do your hands go numb when riding a bike?  If so, you are not alone.

While some instances of hand numbness on a bicycle have easy solutions, like redistributing weight from the hands to the saddle, other cases are not so simple.  From exploring how bike fit can help alleviate numb hands to why numb hands still happen for some riders even after a good bike fit, we’ll dig a bit deeper into the causes and solutions of numb hands when riding.

How Does a Proper Bike Fit Help Numb Hands When Riding:

If a riding position does not take fundamental kinetic support structure into account, or is simply too extreme, it can compress nerves and put your hands to sleep.  A good bike fit establishes as neutral and balanced a riding position as possible for the rider’s body and how they use their bike.

Quite frequently, just getting the bike more under the rider and providing better support can redistribute pressure and relieve points where nerve compression occurs.  By taking pressure off the hands, wrists, elbows, neck and shoulders numb hands can improve, if not be totally solved.

It is important to note that “redistributing pressure” and “too extreme” does not always mean that the handlebars are too low.  There are cases where a faster, more sport oriented rider can get numb hands and experience more hand pressure because they are actually searching for a lower handlebar position.  In cases like this, the rider is effectively pushing down on the handlebar (creating pressure) as they try to get lower and the handlebar should actually be lowered.

This being said, bike fit is only part of the equation.  You can’t talk about “proper” bike fit without also talking about the rider’s technique and posture on the bike. A riding position can only encourage proper posture and technique, it is up to the rider to actually use the right muscles.  This is why we spend so much time in a Fit Werx’s fitting working with you on posture and muscle recruitment and not just setting up an accommodative riding position and sending you out the door.

How Do Numb Hands on the Bike Relate to Riding Technique?

It is pretty easy to get used to riding a bike with compromised technique.  The technique item we see the most that contributes to numb hands is bracing.  “Bracing” basically means that instead of sitting on top of the bike and using key pelvic support muscles, the rider uses their hands, arms and shoulders to brace against the handlebar and then push themselves back against the saddle.  This is usually accompanied by rigid elbows and raised shoulders.

Just about everyone braces at one time or another while riding.  When complete fatigue sets in, bracing almost happens automatically as a survival mechanism.  However, when you brace consistently, the following can result:

  • Numb hands.
  • Sore elbows and/or wrists.
  • Sore neck and/or shoulder.
  • Lower back issues.
  • Saddle issues.
  • All or many of the above…

It is easy for me to say, “Stop bracing”.  Even once properly fit, getting someone who has braced while riding a bike for many years to stop is not so easy.  Old muscular habits die hard.  But die they must if solutions are to happen.

How do I Stop Bracing When I Ride a Bike?

Step 1:  Get a good bike fit.  A good fit doesn’t just accommodate your current tendencies, but instead encourages you to ride in a neutral riding position.  The fitting should also explain what riding in a neutral position means and give you insight into your natural tendencies and muscular imbalances.  We call this approach Bike Fit 2.o.

Step 2:  Have active abs; active glutes; active inner thigh muscles.

Know your primary pelvic stabilizers (the three muscle groups above) and use them while riding.  Your goal is to sit on top of your bike in the “Universal Athletic Pose” – the ball sport “ready” position.  You don’t brace when in this position – you actively support and balance yourself with your muscles.  Done properly (not relying on the back muscles, calf muscles or quads too much), the primary pelvic stabilizers can be developed to exhibit strong endurance and to take pressure off the most common areas people have problems while riding a bike.

Step 3:  Keep your cadence up and push some power.  A higher cadence encourages the rider to tighten abdominal muscles and reduce pressure throughout the contact points on the bike.

Step 4:  Practice until you get used to it and keep checking in with yourself.  If you feel loose and relaxed in your elbows, wrists and shoulders, you are likely not bracing.  If you start to feel pressure in one of these places, you likely are starting to brace and you need to get the support back into your core.

Why Does Only One Hand Fall Asleep When Riding?

Issues with one side of the body while riding a bike often come from muscular imbalances, likely originating at the pelvis.  If your hip rotates forward on one side more than the other, you put load onto one side more than the other.  This can cause muscles to restrict more around the thoracic outlet in the neck and shoulders on one side or simply vertebrae compression to happen more on one side than the other.

If you notice that you hold more tension on one shoulder than the other, check to see if you have some recessive pelvic stabilizer muscles on one side compared to the other.

“I Have a Neutral Riding Position.  I Don’t Brace.  I Still Get Numb Hands.”

So, you have had a good bike fit; you rest your hands in multiple positions on the handlebars; and you diligently use your abs and glutes to support and stabilize your torso weight to keep weight off your hands, but you still get numb hands.  What is likely going on?

On one level it is likely as simple as angles and nerve compression.  You may just have an article of clothing that is too tight in the wrong place (check gloves and jerseys at the armpit in particular).

On another level, it is as complicated as angles and nerve compression.  Depending on where your hands go numb, you are likely seeing a nerve compression in the cervical spine at C6, C7 or C8.

C6 supplies the upper arm, thumb and the palm around the thumb.

C7 is primarily the 3rd and 4th finger (but a little of 2nd and 5th…) along with the center of the palm.

C8 is the pinky and a bit of the 4th finger and the palm under the pinky.

If nerve compression happens at one of more of the cervical vertebrae, the hands will likely fall asleep.

What to Do About Cervical Spine Nerve Compression that Causes Hands to Fall Asleep

Many people who get numb hands from cervical spine nerve compression while riding a bike can also experience similar numbness in other activities where they have to reach forward and down.  Unless there is nerve damage (neuropathy) or a skeletal deformity that is causing the nerve compression, changing the muscular patterns that you use to support your neck and head is the likely solution.   Riding a bike encourages you to look up and bend your neck back.  Without enough head/neck retraction, a compressed nerve can easily happen and, you got it, numb hands result.

So, what do you do about it?  Change your neck and shoulder posture and use care to not push your wrists down while riding.

On the easier side of things, get in the habit of looking up with your eyes (instead of your neck) whenever possible.  Removing any visor you may have on your helmet can help.  On the more challenging side of things, consider working with a postural specialist to retrain your brain and muscles to support your skeletal system in a position where the compression and misalignment is less likely.

If you have a good Physical Therapist or Personal Trainer that you work with, talk to them about it.  Otherwise, contact Postural Restoration Institute and they can help you find providers in your area who have taken courses in retraining muscle patterns.

Conclusions on Numb Hands on the Bike

Good Bike Fit + Proper Muscle Recruitment/Posture  =  Happy Hands.

If you haven’t had a good bike fit (or if it has been awhile), contact us to schedule.

If you haven’t started working with a postural based Physical Therapist or Personal Trainer, start.

Think about what you are doing as you ride.  Riding a bike well and solving problems is a conscious and active activity.  Just doing the same thing you always have won’t change things.  Understanding what is going on and doing something actively about it will.

Ride often and ride well!

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