Overuse injuries are common among cyclists, especially wrist injuries, which are often overlooked. In fact, around one-third of all overuse injuries from bicycling involve the hands or wrists. In the United States alone, some 80 million people cycle, and 31 percent of those people have reported hand and wrist injuries. The two most common wrist injuries in cyclists are carpal tunnel syndrome and handlebar palsy.
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Handlebar palsy, also known as ulnar neuropathy, is very common in cyclists. It is caused by the compression of the ulnar nerve at the hand and wrist. This is due to direct pressure being placed on the nerve by the grip on the handlebars. The ulnar nerve controls sensation in the ring and little fingers as well as most of the muscular function in the hand. Symptoms include numbness and tingling in the ring and little fingers, along with hand weakness. This condition can take anywhere from several days to several months to resolve depending on the severity. It is commonly treated with rest, stretching and anti-inflammatory medications.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Carpal tunnel syndrome is less common than handlebar palsy for cyclists. It is generally caused by holding onto the top of the handlebars and applying pressure to the median nerve. The nerve runs from the forearm to the palm of the hand and controls sensation on the palm side of the thumb and fingers, with the exception of the little finger. Carpal tunnel syndrome causes numbness and tingling in the thumb, index, middle and ring fingers, as well as weakness in the hand. This condition usually resolves itself quickly with rest.
Prevention through Stretching and Form
Both carpal tunnel syndrome and handlebar palsy can be prevented by thorough stretching of the hands and wrists before every ride. In addition, regular stretching of the wrist and forearms through weight training will help develop the wrist joint and surrounding muscles to prevent injury. Changing hand positions during rides will also help. Shift the weight in your hands from the center of your palms to the outside of your hands as often as possible while cycling to reduce constant pressure on the nerves. Keep your elbows bent slightly to absorb shock and don’t let your wrists drop below the handlebars.
Prevention with Equipment
Adjust your handlebars, seat and pedals to best suit your body and allow you to sit in a more upright position. Sitting upright will take the weight and pressure off of your hands and wrists. Wearing padded gloves may also reduce shocks and jolts to your body, which travel into your wrist joints from the road and can lead to pain.