If you’re a fan of long endurance rides, a commuter, or a weekend warrior cyclist, you may have experienced numb hands at some point. It’s a common problem among cyclists and can take the fun out of your time on the bike.
It may only happen occasionally for some and regularly for others. What can you do to prevent or ease the problem?
These are excellent questions, and I’ll discuss them in this article.
What causes numb hands?
A funny thing about numb hands, they sneak up on you during a ride. You don’t notice or think about it until it’s already a reality. There are many reasons which contribute to your numb hands, but compressed nerves and restricted blood flow are the principal sources.
The pins and needles you feel result from extreme pressure on the nerve endings that pass through your hands, particularly the meaty parts of your palm just below your thumb (Thenar Eminence) and along the exterior toward your pinky finger (Hypothenar Eminence). These are the parts of your hands that generally rest on the bars when you ride.
Scientific names aside, three critical nerves, the Median, Radial, and Ulnar nerves pass through these two zones on their way to your fingers. Their presence explains why hands are so sensitive to touch.
The Radial and Ulnar arteries flow along these corridors and get their name from the two bones in our forearms, the Radius, and Ulna. To get to your actual palm and fingers, they travel through an anatomical tunnel (Carpal) that protects and provides them safe passage.
How you grasp your handlebars, for how long, and at what intensity determine the amount of pressure put on these important zones. The more pressure, the more your hands become numb.
Handlebar Palsy is a medical name to explain tingling in your ring and pinky finger. Handlebar Palsy is caused by an irritation of the Ulnar nerve and can lead to total numbness or a loss of hand strength.
Also known as Cyclists Palsy or Ulnar Neuropathy, it’s a common condition caused by excess pressure on nerve endings and blood vessels in your hands from an overload of road vibrations or poor riding position.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
The Carpal Tunnel you may have heard of is associated with people who type excessively in a non-ergonomic position. It’s an overuse injury, and the same principle applies to cyclists. This is the tunnel I touched on earlier where the nerves, particularly the Median nerve, pass through our palms on the way to the rest of the hand.
As cyclists flex their wrists to hold handlebars, a similar position to typing, this tunnel gets irritated and inflamed, causing eventual numbness in the thumb, fingers, and hand or a loss of grip strength.
This condition is a nuisance, but not enough for most to see a doctor, so its actual prevalence remains unknown.
How to get rid of numb hands while cycling
Enough of the names, how’s, and whys. You’re here to find out about what you can actually do to ease numb hands when you’re riding.
Here are six solutions to try, and hopefully, they’ll ease and eliminate your numb hands.
Wear padded cycling cloves
Cycling gloves don’t just protect your hands when you fall. They have padding in strategic places, right over where nerves lay, to reduce road vibrations that pass through the handlebars to your palms.
Over an extended ride, especially on rough roads or terrain, vibrations accumulate and irritate the nerves underneath, provoking numbness.
Elastic Interface, a leading cycling pads maker, produces various glove padding designs for specific use such as race, gravel, lightweight, and slim profile. The padding is strategically placed with varying thicknesses to provide maximum support and comfort.
Regularly change hand positions
Change is good, and moving your hands around the handlebar will prevent or ease numb hands.
I’m a fan of riding on the hoods, but I also use the tops when braking isn’t an issue, like on a long straightaway. I seldom ride in the drops unless going at full speed on the flats.
Double wrap bar tape
Bar tape is made of vibration absorbing materials like cork, and adding a second layer amplifies its relief. Double wrapped bars are common in the cobbled classics such as Paris Roubaix and have a long history of success.
A second option is gel inserts placed where you want on the bar and taped over with your usual wrap.
Ensure saddle is not tilting downward
Saddles should be horizontal to the ground.
Use a spirit level to verify yours. A titled saddle creates a slope, focusing more bodyweight onto the hands holding your handlebars.
You’re constantly fighting against gravity in this position, and that added pressure only amplifies road vibrations. You might not feel it directly, but your hands may be letting you know if they keep going numb.
Get a professional bike fit
Chronic numb hands when you ride could be your motivation for getting a professional bike fit, but it’s an investment you won’t stop there.
A bike fit professional will dial in your position on the bike, verify your pedal and cleats, saddle height, stem length, bar width, and more.
If you’ve got the resources, schedule one today. Ask your local bike shop if you don’t know where to find one.
Relax your hands
Cycling is fun, so lighten up on that grip!
There is no need to go white-knuckled holding on to your handlebars.
Relax your shoulders and use your arms as shock absorbers by bending your elbows. Avoid closing your hands completely over the bars as you’ll tend to start pulling. Your legs and core should do the work, not your arms. Your hands and neck will thank you.