For bicyclists, an ergonomic and properly positioned bicycle seat is essential for preventing back problems such as sciatica, a painful condition caused by compression to the sciatic nerve that extends from the pelvis and down the back of each leg. A good bicycle seat for preventing sciatica pain and other back problems promotes an upright sitting position that doesn't place excessive strain on the low back. However, several factors unrelated to the bicycle seat, such as handlebar positioning and hamstring flexibility, may also influence whether you experience sciatica pain while cycling.
Between 30 percent and 70 percent of bicyclists experience painful low back problems such as sciatica, according an in-depth health guide written by A.D.A.M., Inc. and published by "The New York Times." However, simply adjusting the angle of the bicycle seat may prevent cycling-related back pain --- according a 1999 study published in "British Journal of Sports Medicine," among a sample of recreational bicyclists suffering from low back pain, 70 percent were able to reduce their pain by adjusting the bike seat to create an anterior-inclining, or upward-tilting, angle. While a downward-tilted seat angle is often preferred by cyclists for its more efficient speed-profile, cycling with a downward-tilted seat puts strain on the low back, which can lead to or exacerbate back problems, including sciatica.
In addition to the seat angle, certain types of bicycle seats may be better for sciatica than others. Sitting on a hard bicycle seat for lengthy periods of time can put excessive pressure on the low back and nerves that go through the pelvis, potentially causing or or worsening sciatica. According to a 2004 article published in "Massage Therapy Journal," using a soft, split-saddle or nose-less bicycle seat encourages good posture while cycling to prevent repetitive stress injuries and nerve impingement. These types of bike seats allow the sit-bones -- which are designed to withstand long periods of sitting -- to bear the majority of your bodyweight, placing your spine in an upright position. Some of these ergonomic bike seat models include the BiSaddle, the DDwings Ergonomic Bike Saddle, the Hobson Bike Seat, the Spongy Wonder Bike Seat and The Seat.
While the positioning and type of bicycle seat you use when cycling can cause sciatica pain, these are not the only factors that can that contribute to sciatica in cyclists. For example, your bicycle's handlebar positioning may encourage poor posture when cycling, leading to sciatica and other problems. Maintaining flexible hamstrings is also important for sciatica pain prevention, particularly for cyclists. Strong low-back and abdominal muscles are important for preventing back pain and injuries as well. In addition, while regular exercise is good for sciatica, excessive exercise, such as cycling for many hours at a time without resting, can cause low back problems.
To prevent low-back pain while cycling, it is important to maintain good, upright posture. Taking frequent breaks when bicycling can help prevent muscle fatigue that may cause you to slouch. Besides buying an ergonomic bike seat and positioning it at an anterior-inclining angle to maintain an upright seating position when biking, you can also buy specially shaped handlebars or handlebar extensions that allow for more upright riding. Stretching the hamstrings and other muscles before and after exercising is also important for preventing cycling injuries and sciatica pain. According to sports injury specialist Ben E. Benjamin, a cyclist with sufficiently flexible hamstrings should be able to place the hands or finger tips on the floor while standing and bending forward with straight legs. If you are unable to touch the ground with your knees extended, your hamstrings are too tight.
- "The New York Times"; Health Guide -- Sciatica; 2009
- MayoClinic.com; Sciatica; April 2010
- "British Medical Journal"; Effect of Changing the Saddle Angle on the Incidence of Low Back Pain in Recreational Bicyclists; Salai et al.; 1999
- "Massage Therapy Journal"; Cycling and Your Health; Ben E. Benjamin; 2004