Going on long rides around town or through the woods offers a unique sense of fun and freedom—and occasionally, unique aches and pains. One common source of that discomfort comes from the hands. In fact, Kevin Schmidt, physical therapist, bike fit specialist, and founder of Pedal PT in Portland, Oregon, says one of the complaints he hears most frequently from cyclists is about hand numbness.
Whenever you feel a tingly sensation, which often accompanies numbness, that means you’re compressing a nerve, Schmidt explains. And when it comes to hand numbness, that means you’re likely putting pressure on one of three nerves: the radial, median, or ulnar nerve.
While you’re probably not consciously causing this compression, a few default positions on the bike can inevitably lead to the pressure. Here and in the video below, Schmidt explains the causes of hand numbness while you’re riding, plus how to sidestep them so you can ride in comfort.
3 Main Causes of Hand Numbness and How to Avoid Them
1. Wrist position
Too much backward bending in the wrist itself can cause compression in the carpal tunnel, where a nerve of the hand and wrist comes through, Schmidt says. This often results in tingling in the thumb, index, and middle finger, specifically. However, keeping your wrists totally straight can also lead to issues.
Quick fix: Check your wrist flexion
“A lot of times, people assume the wrist should be straight when they’re holding the handlebars,” Schmidt says. “But that’s actually a compressive position.” The most open position for the nerves is about 10 to 20 degrees of flexion (or backward bend). If you have creases in your wrists, that’s when you’ve gone too far into the flexed position.
Keep an eye on your wrist position throughout your ride to maintain that optimal bend, but also, move your hands and wrists around as you pedal. Staying in the same position for hours can also cause aches, so switch it up as you go.
2. Too much pressure on the hands
If you feel tingling in the pinky and ring finger, it’s likely stemming from too much pressure in the hands, toward the outside of the palm. This extra pressure stems from a few culprits.
Quick fix: Check your saddle, posture, and handlebar position
Schmidt often fits cyclists who ride e-bikes and many times, they place extra pressure on the hands and experience hand numbness because of their saddle position. “The saddle is sometimes too high and it’s also saddle nose down,” Schmidt says, which causes you to dump your weight into your hands. This doesn’t just affect e-bike riders, though—all cyclists should check their saddle.
Adjusting your seat can help you hit the goal of about 30 percent of your weight in your hands and 70 percent on the saddle, Schmidt says.
While getting a professional bike fit is the best way to find the right saddle height and position for you, you can also try the sit-up test to make sure it’s not titled too far forward. With your bike sturdy (setting it up on a trainer will do), sit on the saddle and take your hands off the bars. Let your body go loose. If you feel yourself sliding forward while sitting or while pedaling slowly, it’s time to make an adjustment.
If you feel steady and comfortable on the saddle but still experience hand numbness, consider your posture as you ride. “You want your back flat,” Schmidt says, not rounded. By maintaining a neutral spine and taller chest, you’re better able to engage your core, which takes some pressure off your hands. Your arms should also be loose, elbows slightly bent, so you’re not riding with stiff arms.
Finally, a handlebar that’s too wide can cause you to roll your hands inward in an attempt to make the bar feel more narrow and that puts more pressure on the nerve that leads to pinky-side hand numbness, Schmidt explains. To check your handlebar width, measure (in centimeters) from the center of one shoulder to the center of the other. The total centimeters (or total, plus two) is how wide your bars should span.
For how far apart to place hands on the bars, do a simple trick from Schmidt: Stand about four feet away from a wall. Fall toward the wall and catch yourself with your hands. The distance between your hands equals how far apart to place them on the bike.
3. Neck pain
Neck pain can also lead to hand numbness, Schmidt says. So if you feel aches in your neck, along with the tingling sensation in the hands, it’s best to address the pain point first.
Quick fix: Pay attention to body alignment
Another reason to avoid a rounded back: It strains the neck as you try to look up at the road ahead. “Think chest up, chin slightly down when you’re riding to keep everything nice and straight,” Schmidt says.
You can practice this neutral spine position by grabbing a broom stick or similar object. (Schmidt demonstrates this in the video above.) Place it behind the back, grabbing the top with one hand, and the bottom with the other. Your head, back, and glutes should touch the stick. From here, hinge forward by sending your butt straight back, and maintain all points of contact with the stick. This is the position you should maintain on your bike. Practice the alignment while you’re off the saddle, and it will become more second nature while you’re on it.
To really nail strong body positioning on the bike, it’s crucial for cyclists to know how to hinge (the broom stick method offers a great way to practice). Not only does it help you avoid aches and pains from your head to your feet, but it also helps you get into the proper sitting position and allows you to ride more efficiently.
Finally, sometimes we’re forced to hold a more hunched-over position when the handlebars sit too far from the saddle, Schmidt says. The goal is about 90 degrees between the shoulder and the torso as you reach for the bars. If you’re beyond that, it often puts more pressure on the neck, leading to aches and numbness. In this case, a bike fit adjustment is also the way to go.
Mallory Creveling, an ACE-certified personal trainer and RRCA-certified run coach, joined the Runner's World and Bicycling team in August 2021. She has more than a decade of experience covering fitness, health, and nutrition. As a freelance writer, her work appeared in Women's Health, Self, Men's Journal, Reader's Digest, and more. She has also held staff editorial positions at Family Circle and Shape magazines, as well as DailyBurn.com. A former New Yorker/Brooklynite, she's now based in Easton, PA.