As spring brings warmer weather and adds daylight hours, biking fever spreads! Although biking is fun and can be good for your health, cyclists should still keep a few things about their bodies in mind before hitting those trails to prevent injury. Given its whole body involvement, cycling can cause a few injuries including ones to the upper body. In fact, one survey found that approximately 31 percent of cyclists reported overuse hand problems.1 So, whether your biking dreams entail off-road adventures or long-distance road cycling, it is important to take precautions to protect your arms and hands from injury, which can arise from one or more of these three causes: improper positioning, sustained positioning or trauma from a fall or collision.
Even after buying the correct sized bike and having the seat aligned, a misfit between the cyclist and the bike can occur affecting not only the spine and legs, but also the arms. Symptoms that may signal poor positioning can include numbness and tingling in the ring and small fingers, numbness and tingling in the thumb, index, and middle fingers, clumsiness with tasks involving hand coordination and pain in the arms, wrist, hands and back. Some common positioning mistakes that can lead to numbness, tingling and wrist and thumb/hand pain include hands being positioned wider than shoulder-width apart and the wrists being angled too far back, forward or inward. These can be addressed by changing handle bars from straight to angled or using aero bars. Wearing padded gloves can also absorb the shock and vibration of the ride as well as allow for a looser grip. Pain in the back and hands can stem from riding with rounded back and shoulders or with elbows locked in extension and can involve handle bars that are too low or too high in relation to the seat or tight hamstrings. What is the right position then? The ideal riding position involves a neutral back, slight elbow bend, hands shoulder width apart and wrists in mid-position. Changes in handle bar height and angle (as mentioned above) as well as addition of ergonomic grips, added bar ends, adjustable height or adjustable angle handle bars can all assist to achieve the correct positioning. If the above necessary positioning modifications are made and the affected body part is rested early enough, the symptoms should resolve within a couple of days. However, if symptoms involve coordination problems with the fingers or have been longstanding, it may take weeks to months to recover and may possibly require seeing a physiotherapist.
Even with the best bike fit, sustained positioning while riding has the inherent risk of continuous pressure and requires constant shock absorption on the part of vital structures including: blood vessels, nerves, joints and muscles. This can lead to tissue breakdown and inflammation. This can be especially prevalent with road bikes as their speed and aerodynamics require the trunk to be angled 60-75 degrees forward toward the bars (i.e., the cyclist is not as upright as the off road mountain biker or hybrid biker).2 This position requires strong overall core and upper body conditioning to go faster and/or longer distances. Addressing these areas as part of an overall fitness regimen can help prevent issues while riding. Another way to counteract pain from sustained positioning is frequently moving the body parts that are typically static during a ride. This can be achieved by changing hand holds every three to five minutes and stretching on breaks or after the ride. Seek further posture evaluation with the physiotherapist to understand variation in postures and their impact on the spine and overall improvement in the agility level.