Cycling is a great fitness option and becoming more popular all the time, partly because it’s fun, partly because it’s an activity most of us have mastered at a fairly young age, its green and it is also relatively cheap.
There are, of course, bikes that can cost as much as a good used car, but you can find inexpensive, reliable bikes around and the maintenance costs are minimal unless you are competing.
Having said that, there are some hazards with cycling, the most obvious and potentially devastating are encounters with motor vehicles.
But even though one might expect lower body injuries to be the most prevalent in an activity driven by the legs, the upper body is the most frequently injured.
Of these injuries, one condition called ‘cyclists hand’ or ‘handlebar palsy’ can be very debilitating and painful.
This syndrome is much less common than carpal tunnel syndrome, but both conditions can occur at the same time.
The symptoms caused by these two conditions affect the hand in different locations.
Of the three main nerves (radial, median and ulnar) that leave the neck and supply your arm, it is the ulnar nerve that is affected. This nerve travels from your neck down the inside of your upper arm wraps around the elbow and through the cubital tunnel, which is the area you bump to cause the ‘funny bone’ tingling in your hand.
It then runs down the pinky finger side of the forearm, and finally between two wrist bones called the hamate and pisiform bones (Guyon’s canal) and into the hand.
The pressure of the handlebar on these bones at the heel of the hand traps the ulnar nerve, putting pressure on and irritating it.
Symptoms can include numbness, tingling, and pain in the ring and pinky fingers and down that side of the hand, as well as varying levels of weakness in the muscles.
The condition has been seen in road cyclists for years, but with the popularity of off-road cycling more recently, the frequency has increased.
Vibration of the handlebar during mountain biking is a likely contributor to this condition.
You can also get this from other activities requiring large grip forces or tool use like jack-hammering.
There are a few things you can do to avoid this condition.
One of the prime causes is improper handlebar positioning.
If the handlebar is too low or too far forward, it can cause more body weight to be transferred onto the wrists, causing too much pressure on the nerve. It would be a good idea to have the bike professionally set up for you.
Another cause is just poor grip technique, resting your body-weight on the nerve instead of gripping the bar properly with the handle in the middle of the hand. You may need to look into purchasing padded riding gloves, padding the handlebars or even a splint may be recommended by your doctor or therapist.
If you are experiencing symptoms, it is probably a good idea to cease cycling until symptoms resolve and try something else for a while. Nerve compression at the neck or at the elbow can also be a cause for numbness and tingling in the hand as can other health conditions, so you may need to be checked for these sources as well.
In the end, if you are experiencing symptoms, don’t ignore them or try to train through it – get it checked out.
Kerry Senchyna holds a bachelor of science degree in kinesiology.