How to reduce load and pain on your wrists when cycling

Kristy Pritchard, AHTA Accredited Hand Therapist

Cycling is a much loved activity and sport in Australia.  Many of us have at least one or two bicycles in the garage but how do we stop our hands and wrists from hurting when we cycle?

Cycling injuries to the upper limb can be broken into acute injuries or chronic / overload injuries.  Acute injuries are mainly those sustained in a crash or fall from the bike such as fracture, dislocation or soft tissue injury such as ligament strain.  Overload injuries occur when the stress and strain imposed on the body from the cycle position or the road conditions or the length of time on your bicycle exceed your current strength, fitness and resilience to load transfer.  These injuries can include carpal tunnel syndrome, ulnar nerve neuropathy, neck pain and thoracic outlet syndrome.

If you have symptoms such as numbness in your fingers, pain in your wrists or weakness when using the fingers and thumb it is best to have a proper assessment with a practitioner of hand therapy.  They will be able to diagnose your condition and provide you with appropriate strategies to recover and get you back on that bike.  This may include a custom made orthosis, taping, exercises for strength and stretching.  Otherwise, you can try the following tips to ensure that you are sitting more comfortably on your bicycle and working towards reducing pressure placed through your arms, wrists and hands onto the handlebars.

  1. Ensure your bicycle is the correct frame size for your height.  Riding a bike too big or too small will reduce the adjustability afforded to your seat height and bar height.
  2. Consider having a bike fit at your local bicycle store.  This is the easiest method of ensuring you are set up in proportion to your leg and arm length.  It may even help you to go faster!
  3. Handle bar height can be raised or lowered depending on your arm and torso length.  The handle bar stem can also be replaced with longer or shorter versions to bring the bars in towards you or further away.  If you feel as though you are stretching out for the handle bars you likely will not be sitting on the saddle correctly placing more pressure on your wrists and less on your pelvis and legs.
  4. Curved handlebars allow the wrists to rest in a more neutral posture additionally opening up the chest by encouraging improved spinal posture on the bike.  These are more commonly used on mountain bikes or on ‘townies’ or urban bikes.
  5. Invest in a good quality gel or foam padded glove.  There should be padding over the centre and the little finger side to reduce the risk of nerve compressions including carpal tunnel and ulnar nerve neuropathy.
  6. Silicone hand grips may reduce the impact of vibration transmitted from the road through the frame to your hands.  Vibration is known to be an irritant to nerves and silicone hand grips are softer than the usual grips.
  7. Carbon fibre handlebars will reduce the vibration further. If you think that this is a major issue it might be worth the cost.
  8. Hand grips can also be changed for wider diameter grips therefore reducing the amount of bending your finger joints have to achieve to hold on to the bike.  These might be especially useful if you have arthritis in your fingers or have difficulty making a tight fist.
  9. Core stability exercises will encourage you to sit on the saddle and drive more appropriately with your legs, reducing the need to bounce or rock the pelvis from side to side.  Gradual training increases in your time spent on the bike is recommended to increase your tolerance to stress and strain.
  10. Think about your wrist position whilst you are cycling.  Does it feel better to twist them slightly out rather than follow the straight direction of your bar? Look at your wrists, try to avoid them hanging bending backwards to extremes as this will stretch the nerves in your wrist.  You should be changing the posture of your wrists throughout the ride so as to change the pressure distribution and encourage improved blood flow.
  11. Lift your breastbone up gently.  This stops you sagging through your shoulders, helps to reduce the chin poke and opens the chest area improving blood flow to the arms.
  12. Lastly if you are having pain and can link it to the same type of cycling ie always downhill, always uphill, always on bumpy tracks, always when fatigued… might be time to start a little cross training rather than let a little niggle turn into a chronic overload injury. 

So follow some or all of these tips if you are having pain in your wrists when cycling. If issues persist, you can see a friendly practitioner of hand therapy to diagnose and treat your condition further. Happy cycling!

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