Biking numbness
July 8, 2014 7:44 PM   Subscribe

I get numbness in my right hand after biking 5 to 10 miles. Now what?

I know you are not my neurologist, my physical therapist, my yoga teacher or my bike mechanic. Still, I want your advice based on anecdote and personal experience!

I have not dropped several hundred dollars on a complex professional bike fitting, but I have had two experienced and nice bike store guys look at me on my bike and make a few adjustments to seat and bar stem height.

I have tried tilting the nose of my seat up a bit causing a bit more groin pressure and no relief to my wrist/hand issue.

Gloves sometimes help, but conversely, sometimes seem to bring on numbness more quickly. Sometimes alternating on then off buys me more time before the numbness kicks in.

This is my first bike with drop handlebars. I love how zippy I feel in this position and am loathe to spend the money necessary to to totally replace my brifter/handlebar setup (which I am also quite fond of), but I suppose I'd do it if it's the only solution.

But note, my previous ride, a straight handlebar'ed mountain bike, also caused occasional hand numbness.

Googling "touring handlebar" I see a lot of weirder options that I guess provide a wide variety of hand positions. Have you tried these?

Anyhow, have you had this specific issue (or have some experience with it?) and have you been successful in fixing it? How?

And also, why only my right hand?!

Here's my pretty bike!
posted by latkes to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I used to get this. Try changing the location of your hands frequently; on the drops, the cross bar, the hood of the brakes, etc. Also, try to think about how much pressure you are putting on your hands. Try to keep them firm enough to hold on but don't have a death grip. Also don't put the full weight of your torso on your hands. Use your core muscles to support some of the weight. If you pay attention to this for a while it will become automatic.

If it continues you might want to get the bike refit, maybe consult someone in a sports medicine office. You definitely don't want to risk damaging your hands.
posted by beowulf573 at 7:54 PM on July 8, 2014 [8 favorites]

This is pretty common, but I'm surprised to hear it's happening after only 5-10 miles. I think this is a fit issue, when your bike set-up means you're putting too much weight on your hands.

A few other tips:
Switch hand positions regularly.
Switch body positions at times as well -- sit more up sometimes, lower other times.
When you stop at intersections or lights, stand up with your feet on the ground, and stretch your arms behind you, over your head, etc.; flex your wrists and hands.
Don't grip the handlebars too tightly.
Wear gloves with good padding.

It also might be a matter of getting used to this. I'd give it a few more times and try out these tips and see if it doesn't prove.

Also, for what it's worth, my professional, shockingly excellent bike fitting was under $300 and was worth every penny in comfort.
posted by bluedaisy at 8:02 PM on July 8, 2014

I use really heavily padded gloves and they help a lot. Gloves like this. It's hard to tell from the picture, but the whole palm of the glove is padded, and then there's padding on top of that on the meat of the thumb and the underside of the knuckles.
posted by RogueTech at 8:02 PM on July 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Hand numbness is often caused by putting too much weight on your hands. It's not obvious, but you should not be resting any of your weight on your hands - a common test of bike fit is to be able to support your weight with your hands just off of the handlebars. Bike fit alterations that may help you are increasing the handlebar height and decreasing the saddle height. However, both of these changes have the distinct possibility of shifting your problem to other parts of your body (in particular, your lower back). The best solution here is to make sure you don't grip the handlebar too tightly and that you put as little weight on your hands as possible. Your body weight should be supported by your body's core cantilevered over the saddle rather than your hands. To develop this habit, it can actually be helpful to ride without padded gloves to demonstrate to yourself the conscious/unconscious weight shift that's likely happening for you.

why only my right hand?!

Your body is pretty good at subconsciously accounting for injuries, weaknesses, or asymmetries in the body. I suspect something is a bit off on your left side of your body. I suggest looking for off-center handlebars, off-center saddles, etc. If none are found, consciously start resting more weight on your left hand.
posted by saeculorum at 8:05 PM on July 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

This is probably a fit issue. Are your handle bars perfectly level? Are they too low relative to your seat? Back to the bike shop and tell them the problem. An experienced bike guy will look at how you're fitting the bike and tweak it in a few minutes.

Or it's a core strength issue. Planks are your friend here.
posted by 26.2 at 8:11 PM on July 8, 2014

That used to happen to me and I found two things helped - First, my gloves were too tight between the fingers. (But I did experience some, though less, numbness without gloves). Second, as I developed more muscles (maybe in my butt?) it simply stopped happening.
posted by beyond_pink at 8:46 PM on July 8, 2014

I would not advise tipping the nose of the saddle up. This will not alleviate the hand-numbness problem, and it could bring on a previously nonexistent saddle problem. The saddle should be flat.

Nthing what the others are saying about putting too much weight on your hands.The emphasis should be on your hips and legs. The arms and shoulders are merely holding up your upper body. The lower body is doing the real work: directing and moving the bike forward.

You may need a shorter stem, or the saddle may need to be moved forward. Hard to say without seeing you on the bike. Do not tilt the bars upward. Do not feel that you must remove the drop bars entirely. As you have experienced yourself, straight bars are not without their issues: namely having only one place to put your hands.

Also, as said above, get comfortable on all the positions. Hoods, tops, drops. If you can't move easily between these, keep practicing. Also, learn to ride no-hands for another way to alleviate pressure.

I still occasionally get hand numbness during a ride. I chalk it up to the fact that I am coaching people and am not paying the closest attention to my own form. It goes away. When I was working at a desk job, it was more annoying than it is now.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 8:49 PM on July 8, 2014

Also agree with putting too much pressure on your hands. You should be able to ride no hands in the drop position stabilized by your core. Once you are able to find this all your fit issues will be resolved.
posted by Rikocolin at 8:54 PM on July 8, 2014

I ride on the drops 90% of the time and I like to set them up so I'm pushing forward not down at all. That way I can keep my elbows loose. It really eliminates wrist issues for me. Takes more core strength but thrs probably good?
posted by fshgrl at 9:27 PM on July 8, 2014

Try moving your saddle backward. This moves your center of mass closer to your feet so that you can support more of your weight by pushing down on the pedals. Note that small adjustments make a big difference: put a piece of tape on the saddle rail where the clamp is now, and adjust forward a few millimeters a week so you have time to get used to the change.

Also, be mindful about where on your hand you're pressing against the bar. If you press your thumb and pinky together, the heel of your hand should fold into two meaty wads with a crease in between. The crease is right on top of the carpal tunnel, which is how a bunch of nerves pass from your arm into your hand. Don't press that against the bar. The meaty wad on the pinky side is safer. You do have an ulnar nerve, but it's buried more deeply in the meat of your hand and tolerates pressure better.

Also, when going over bumpy road, let your arms become vertically compliant but laterally stiff. Meaning, press your hands together against the sides of the handlebar like you're squeezing and accordion, but let your hands follow the bars up and down as they bounce. That way, you can steer while absorbing less of the shock into your arms.
posted by d. z. wang at 9:45 PM on July 8, 2014

It could be happening just in your right hand because of a nerve impingement in your neck. I've got a similar issue (numbness in right thumb) which comes and goes. I might feel it as I'm warming up around mile 5, then it goes away for about 50 miles, then shows up again when my core muscles are fatigued. It might be helpful to see a physical therapist who understands bike fit, and can give you exercises to strengthen the core and upper back muscles.
posted by oxisos at 10:16 PM on July 8, 2014

I used to get that, was a result of my grip. Bike gloves help me a lot with it.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 11:56 PM on July 8, 2014

Not a rider, but I do have plenty of experience with interesting vascular formations and numbness in my right fingers (though sometimes my left!) while driving or otherwise gripping things. So, I may only be able to comment on this:

And also, why only my right hand?!

It could be for any huge number of reasons relating to asymmetry in your body. Subconscious adjustments for old injuries, tiny spine curvature, uneven fat or muscle distribution, or any of a dozen dozen other things could cause you to put slightly more pressure on your right hand, or pressure on a particular point on your hand that restricts blood flow to nerves, or pressure on certain nerves themselves.

Or, you could just have slightly different blood vessel layouts in your wrist and hands. Are the superficial veins on the backs of your hands exact mirror images of each other? Probably not - and it's possible the layout of blood vessels and nerves in your right palm is more conducive to causing numbness than in your left palm.

"Mindfulness" seems to be a heavily touted thing here, but really it just helps to be aware of the tone you have in each individual muscle as you grip. As I drive, sometimes my right pinky and right finger will start to get numb. As soon as I notice it, I don't even have to shift my grip obviously, just relax the muscles of the outside of my hand, relax the grip of the affected fingers, and it gets better. Tiny adjustments can do wonders, and if you do them consciously long enough, it'll become automatic.

It's especially strange because my left arm is the one with the huge short-circuit, so I'd expect it to have distal circulation problems. But it's usually my right hand that gets numb first. Complex change in blood pressure patterns? Who knows. Bodies are weird.

Another thought - road camber? That might be my problem: adjusting steering for the curbward camber of the road. I don't know how much that affects bikes compared to cars, but it's another thing to consider, especially with drop handlebars.

Another addition to this rather long and rambling answer:

Do you notice differences in numbness biking at different times of day? Do you notice differences in circulation (cold hands in the morning, warm hands in the evening; or vice versa) throughout the day? You might be able to get better circulation going to stave off numbness with some kind of limb-centric warm-up routine before biking. My hands are always cold in the mornings, except when I go out for morning walking or jogging, and then I just can't keep them cool enough for hours afterward.
posted by WasabiFlux at 2:19 AM on July 9, 2014

the stem length could be the problem.
a little bit of stretch can cause strain on your wrists.
a shorter stem is probably easy to fit, and worth a try.
posted by edtut at 3:22 AM on July 9, 2014

I asked the identical question last year, only for me it was the left hand. I still haven't got the professional fitting that I said I would, but I did manage to solve the mystery in my own case. For me, it was that the handlebars were just a tiny bit off perpendicular to the frame - not even a degree off, I would say. You couldn't tell with a casual glance. Anyway, the left grip was just a skotch closer to me than the right, and I was putting more weight on the left as a result. When I made the needed adjustment, left hand numbness went away.
posted by Right On Red at 4:00 AM on July 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I get numbness in my right hand after less than a mile, whether I'm riding my cruiser, flat-bar, or upright hybrid. I just added bar-ends to the hybrid to give me more variety of hand positions. It helps, but I still get numb.

Here's the thing, though. I'm pretty much convinced that my numbness is not really caused by the biking. The numbness during biking is just a symptom of the real cause, which is years of right-hand-dominant computer use. If your situation is similar, then maybe a carpal tunnel relief glove would help, both during computer use and (maybe) when biking.

(Disclaimer: I haven't used one but I know a few people who have been helped by them.)

Good luck!
posted by The Deej at 5:56 AM on July 9, 2014

My wife had this problem. She is very short and it turned out her bike was just too big for her (so she was kind of "stretched" and forced to put weight on her hands). We got her an even smaller bike and now she goes on 30 mile rides with no numbness.
posted by miyabo at 6:02 AM on July 9, 2014

I have and have had this problem on and off for a few years now. As others have said - try different grips, different gloves, and serious fitting. A good fitting can be pricey (from $150 to $300) and you'll probably need to make saddle, crank arm, and stem adjustments but it can and will make a world of difference.

You may also want to try Bar Padding. It can be tricky to get it applied right but it does make a difference once you get it wrapped right.
posted by playertobenamedlater at 7:10 AM on July 9, 2014

Which fingers or parts of your hand are going numb?

I have neck problems which cause numbness starting at the pinky and moving in toward my middle fingers. Usually just the tips of the fingers are involved. Sometimes both hands, sometimes one or the other.

Right now, I'm just putting up with it, but I suspect that I'll need to either choose a much less aggressive stance, or train my posture better so I'm putting less pressure on the C5-C7 area.
posted by tomierna at 10:39 AM on July 9, 2014

If you can afford perhaps $50-100 take your bike to a shop that handles a decent amount of higher end road bikes (and the cyclists who ride/race on them) and have a fitting done. While it is true that the vast majority of your weight should be supported at the body/saddle interface, what percentage of weight supported will depend not only on the geometry of the bike but on how strong your back, core and legs are. They do quite a bit of work keeping your grip on the bars light, especially on a bike with a quick geometry (typically steep head tube/seat tube angles and short stays). I'm thinking this is why you're only seeing the issue crop up after you've been riding for a while. The fitting will examine how you are interfacing with the bike, and make adjustments to saddle height, reach, leg extension etc. etc.

Some years ago while working in the industry I had a full fitting done for a custom touring bike I was building, and I've been able to use the various measurements as my base line for properly adjusting every bike I've had since. It's quite a bit like being fitted for a custom tailored suit, or perhaps what being fitted for prosthetic braces must be like.

You may find that while drops are oh, so shiny, they may not be for you. I now run mustache bars on all of my bikes. I find them much more comfortable, with more available positions, allowing me to tuck deeper on fast descents, have more leverage when I'm feeling dumb enough to venture onto single track or loose fire roads, and be generally more relaxed and comfortable at all times. Which actually allows me to ride at a faster clip on average. Good luck!
posted by chosemerveilleux at 2:44 PM on July 9, 2014

Not sure if this is just relevant to mountain biking, but if you drop your heels more when you pedal and coast, you'll find yourself pulling against the bars rather than supporting your weight on them.

You could alter your riding style to ensure you are cranking the pedals smoothly and not stomping on them, which can cause the pressure on your hands to spike too.

You can also try adjusting your hand position, holding the bars with straighter wrists which transfers the weight to the heel of your and and fingertips rather than the palm. I now use Ergonomic grips on my mtb to combat the hand numbness, the larger palm area pushes my wrist into the correct position. I think I've seen specially shaped grips on road bikes that do this.

A final idea, could you increase the diameter of the drop bar by adding tape or a special foam grip? I found the grip on some bars too narrow for my large hands, which makes for an uncomfortable ride.
posted by guy72277 at 1:39 AM on July 10, 2014

Response by poster: OK folks, so far I am messing mostly with my posture. I've been experimenting for the first time with really riding on the drops and it is totally different. It's true, I'm not really putting pressure on my hands or butt, but primarily on my legs. My legs are now very tired but I know they'll get stronger. When I do this, no numbness.

Regularly changing hand positions alone has not been helpful, unfortunately.

I'm going to keep looking at your other suggestions and do have a plan to get a professional fitting at some point in the next few months depending on budget.

Thanks and I'll keep referencing this thread.
posted by latkes at 1:34 PM on July 17, 2014

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