To Your Health
December, 2009 (Vol. 03, Issue 12)
Enjoy the Ride
By Dr. Ben Benjamin
Bicycling has a variety of health benefits and is a great way to relax and spend time in the outdoors, but as many people know, it can also cause pain and discomfort. Learn why bike design is key if you want to minimize injury risk and enjoy your ride.
For many people, bicycling is a wonderful option. It provides a great cardiovascular workout, strengthens the legs and puts less stress on the ankles, knees and hip joints than running. Additionally, people of any age and body type can cycle safely while reaping the benefits of being out in the fresh air. According to the 2000-2001 National Survey on Recreation and the Environment, an estimated 80 million Americans cycle for pleasure, exercise or as a means of transportation. You probably know someone who cycles on the road or at the gym as part of their exercise program. Unfortunately, cycling is not a risk-free activity. It can cause many different types of musculoskeletal injuries and depending on the type of seat and frequency of use, can even lead to genital dysfunction and other organ damage over time.
Bike design has changed quite a bit over the past few decades. Like everything else in the world today, bikes have gone hi-tech. They are sleeker and lighter, and generally look more appropriate for the Tour de France than for recreational cycling. Most bicycles on the market today force the rider to constantly lean forward. This forward-bent, flexed position reduces wind resistance and maximizes power, but at a high cost to the human body. While professional athletes are trained to maintain this position with minimal ill effects, the average rider may experience a variety of harmful consequences.
Continual tension is placed on the muscles, tendons, joints, and supporting ligaments from the hands through the shoulders and into the back. As a result, bumps in the road send shocks of stress through these structures, making them more vulnerable to injury. This position also requires that the head, one of the heaviest parts of the body, be held up with the neck in extension for long periods of time, which fatigues muscles and tends to hinder circulation and nerve impulses down the arms. At the same time, the low back ligaments are kept in a constantly stretched position, making them vulnerable to damage by sudden additional forces. Mountain biking in a forward-bent position is particularly risky because of the jolting effects of uneven, rough terrain. Frequently the biker's hands will become cold due to diminished circulation. This may be followed by numb-like sensations, setting the stage for injury to the wrists and elbows. Just from hitting a few bumps in the road, it's easy for the wrist to get sprained in such a stressed position.
As harmful as cycling can be to our upper bodies, it can potentially do even more damage to the pelvic region. Almost all bikers have experienced some discomfort in the perineal area [your lower groin / lower pelvic region] or at the ischial tuberosities (the sit bones; basically the bones under the flesh of your buttocks), areas of the body that make near-constant contact with the bike seat, especially after long rides. In some people, cycling can cause highly uncomfortable saddle sores, or even genital numbness. Findings from the Massachusetts Male Aging Study suggest this numbness can interfere with sexual functioning and may be associated with more serious medical problems including genital pain, urinary tract disorders, erectile dysfunction (ED) and localized atherosclerosis.