My hands seem to go numb at some point on just about every ride. Is that just how cycling is, or is there something I can do about it?
Numbness, pins and needles and weakness in the hands can be a result of cyclist’s palsy. This condition, also known as ulnar neuropathy, is caused by pressure over the ulnar nerve as it enters the hand at the wrist.
Unfortunately, the ulnar nerve has to pass through a narrow space just where cyclists tend to rest their hands on the bars. This space is known as the hypothenar eminence and is at the base of the palm, opposite the thumb. The ulnar nerve provides sensation to the little and ring fingers, so it is those fingers that tend to feel numb most often. If feeling in the rest of the fingers is also affected, that would suggest carpal tunnel syndrome – a condition that can be exacerbated by cycling.
Cyclist’s palsy can also affect the hand muscles, with sufferers experiencing loss of grip and having difficulty pinching. It can be difficult to hold the little finger against ring finger, and you may first notice it when your little finger keeps getting caught on the edge of your trouser pockets (this actually has a name: Wartenberg’s sign). Cyclist’s palsy is generally a reversible condition, and can take up to three months to resolve. This requires some weeks with no cycling, so prevention is definitely better than cure. Wear well-padded gloves and use thicker bar tape. Try to avoid putting pressure on the inner aspect of the hands when riding and don’t extend the wrists too much – always try to keep them relaxed and straight.
Carpal tunnel syndrome can be caused by bending the wrists too far back for long periods. Unless you spend a lot of time riding very rough trails, a bike that is correctly set up should allow you to rest your hands fairly lightly on the bars as you ride. If you can’t do this, your seat may be too high or your bars too low. On road bikes, drop bars are better than flats as they allow you to change the positioning of your hands. On a mountainbike, a set of bar ends could also help to bring some relief to those pressure points.