Cycling: numb fingers? It doesn’t have to be – travel

Many cyclists suffer from this problem: When cycling, the fingers become numb, the hands tingle and fall asleep. That hurts and is dangerous because steering becomes difficult and braking is no longer possible as quickly as it should be in a dangerous situation. But neither the pain nor the danger need be if the nerves in the arms and hands are not unnecessarily irritated. What you can do – here are the most important questions and answers:

Where does the tingling and pain in the hands come from?

Sleepy hands and numb fingers are common when cycling, and the more you cycle, the more likely it is that problems will arise. “This is due to misalignments of the body on the bike,” says doctor Stefan Staudte. No or insufficient storage space for the ball of the hand and an unfavorable angle in the wrist are the causes of the pain. The more the upper body leans forward, the more weight is on the hands and wrists. “The risk of fingers and hands falling asleep increases with weight,” says Staudte. He has a doctorate in medicine, urology, cyclist and founding member of SQ-Lab, a company based in Taufkirchen near Munich that develops ergonomic bicycle accessories. Today Staudte is a doctor in private practice and a consultant in the field of research and development at SQ-Lab.

What medical explanation is there for numb fingers?

Nerve pathways in the hands conduct sensory stimuli, process them and trigger reactions such as muscle movements or pain sensations. They make stopping, steering and braking possible. “If the nerve tracts are disturbed, hands and fingers no longer function or only function to a limited extent,” says Staudte. Two nerves share the five fingers of one hand. Thumb, index and middle finger – the so-called slap fingers – are supplied by the median nerve. It runs on the inside of the wrist through the middle of the carpal tunnel to the three fingers. “If the wrist is bent too far back and also to the side, then the median nerve in the carpal tunnel, a bony passage in the middle of the wrist, is kinked and the nerve function is disrupted,” says Staudte. It’s the awkward angles that lead to numbness and tingling in the fingers.

The second trigger can be the ulnar nerve. It runs on the outside of the forearm and wrist and supplies the little finger and ring finger. “If the wrist is bent too much, it increases the pressure on the outside of the hand,” says Staude. “The nerve is squeezed or stretched and can no longer fully fulfill its functions either.” In both cases, sensitive and stressed nerves lead to insufficient supply to the fingers. Vibrations and shocks from uneven roads increase the symptoms that occur.

The wrist should not be bent if possible.

(Photo: Ergon)

Can the wrists be trained prophylactically?

Unfortunately not. Even if the shoulders, upper arms and forearms are trained regularly and correctly, this does not change the pressure on the nerves. Big, heavy biceps, for example, can even be counterproductive because the weight on your hands may increase. “Depending on the type of bike, however, the load can be reduced because the less the upper body is tilted forward, the less pressure there is on the wrist,” says Staudte. Therefore, the basic rule is: the sportier the seating position, the higher the pressure on your hands. Conversely, the load decreases the more comfortable and upright the sitting position is. However, pedaling efficiency suffers as a result and more power is needed to move forward – which is why riders in particular who like to go a little faster often put up with the pain.

Can good advice when buying a bike protect against the symptoms?

Actually already. “But the topic of ergonomics is not as present in the bike trade as it should be,” says Staudte. Many people first buy a bicycle or e-bike and then wait and see what happens. The bike should be tailored to the cyclist and not the cyclist adapting to the bike. That doesn’t work, as the two offended nerves show. “Anyone who buys a bike off the shelf may need modifications so that it is tailored to its owner,” says Staudte. This includes new handles. They can do a lot in connection with a correct adjustment of the saddle and handlebars.

Can something be improved by an adjusted seating position?

Yes. Cyclists sit on the bike with three contact points: handles, saddle, pedals. “We call it the ergonomic triangle,” says sports scientist Janina Haas. She heads the ergonomics department at Ergon, a company that sells ergonomic products for bicycles, including grips, saddles and pedals. Sitting correctly determines whether the body hurts. The load should therefore be distributed sensibly on the bike – ideally within the ergonomic triangle. So if the saddle is too low, it’s bad for the knees and the pressure on the buttocks is (too) great. If the saddle is too high and the handlebars too low, the pressure on your hands increases. “With little tricks and tweaks, however, the situation can be noticeably changed,” says Haas. It is crucial to find the ergonomically correct posture on the bike. Dealers usually sell bikes based on height, few customize them for their owners for an additional charge. “In many cases, this is left to the customers themselves,” says Haas.

Ergonomics when cycling: wing grips make it possible to change your grip from time to time and ride with a different grip position.

Wing grips make it possible to switch grips from time to time and ride with a different grip position.

(Photo: Ergon)

How do “wing grips” work?

In the past, the bicycle handle was simply round, so the contact surface was rather small. Today, so-called wing grips are fitted by some bicycle manufacturers and offered in the aftermarket. These wing grips have a significantly larger contact surface for the ball of the hand, which distributes the pressure on the hands much better. “This reduces the load on the ulnar nerve and thus prevents tingling and numb hands,” says Haas. Because the wing keeps the wrist in an ergonomic position, it is not bent and the median nerve at the carpal tunnel exit is not stretched. The wing grips should always be adjusted individually: they can be turned up or down, and this changes the angle of the wrist when gripping. To set it up, the cyclists sit on their bike and ensure a secure footing by leaning against it or being held by a second person. “When the wings are properly adjusted, the hand forms an almost straight line with the extended forearm,” says Haas. Then the wrist is not bent.

Ergonomics when cycling: handlebar ends, so-called bar ends, are very popular.

Bar ends, so-called bar ends, are very popular.

(Photo: Ergon)

Which wing grips are suitable for which type of bike?

Handles with wings have a preventive effect and often help solve problems. There are wing grips for touring and trekking bikes with almost straight handlebars, as well as wing grips for city and Dutch bikes with handlebars bent backwards. For touring and trekking bikes there are handles with croissants, so-called bar ends. “This allows the grip position to be changed because the handlebars can also be held by the croissants,” says Haas. Variety relaxes the nerves and the entire upper body musculature. There are grips with horns for two, three or four fingers, each plus a thumb. The latter are intended for touring cyclists. “The squirrels help a lot and often cyclists and existing problems with their hands,” says Haas. These are small changes to the bike with noticeable improvements for the cyclists.

How much do wing handles cost?

Various manufacturers offer wing handles, the mail order company Rose, for example, already for around 20 euros. At Ergon, the prices are between 40 and 90 euros; SQ-Lab also develops special handles as standard products and in different sizes. Trekking grips cost between 40 and 50 euros there. A self-experiment showed: wing handles cost little, but bring a lot. Tingling hands can at least be delayed on a (longer) tour. They may even disappear completely with regular use.

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