Avoiding Numb Hands

Avoiding Numb Hands

Hand numbness can spoil the most wonderful long distance ride. A cyclist’s hands can get numb from vibration and pressure.
The first step is to eliminate as much vibration as possible near the source (road surface). Supple, wide tires, run at moderate pressures, are key. Flexible fork blades and suspension are less effective at absorbing high-frequency vibrations, but they can absorb bigger bumps. Cushy handlebar tape is ineffective at absorbing vibrations, but it can reduce pressure.
Why are vibrations easiest to absorb at the source? It is relatively easy to stop a few grams of tire contact patch from moving up and down. This insulates the rest of the bike from the vibrations at the road surface. If your tire doesn’t absorb the vibrations, then your entire front wheel moves up and down a few hundred times every second as it rolls over rough pavement. These forces are then too large to be absorbed elsewhere.
Imagine somebody throwing a peanut at you: It is easy to catch with one hand. Now imagine having to catch a 5 lb weight – much harder. That peanut at the road level becomes a 5 lb weight at the handlebars, if the whole front of the bike vibrates.
Pressure can cause nerve damage in your hands, making them numb or tingly. When you look at the nerves in your hand, you see that there are only a few nerve endings in the base of your thumb, making this area ideal for resting on the handlebars.

The “on the ramps” hand position (behind the brake hoods) supports your weight with the base of your thumb, and therefore tends to be very comfortable (see photo at the top). This works best with handlebars that have flat ramps to support your hands well in that position.
Moderately soft handlebar tape can help distribute the pressure of your hands as they rest on the handlebars. Also, your hands should rest on the bars, rather than grip them tightly. Wrap your fingers around the bars loosely for safety on rough roads.
Beyond that, it helps to switch hand positions from time to time, so that you don’t put pressure on the same spot for too long. Furthermore, raising your handlebars or tilting your saddle nose slightly upward will prevent you from sliding forward and putting more pressure on your arms and hands. (However, tilting your saddle upward may cause other problems for some riders…)
Numb hands can lead to lasting damages. With the right technique and equipment choices, numb hands usually can be avoided even on rides as long as Paris-Brest-Paris (765 miles non-stop).

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Comments (21)

  • DeclanMcKay

    Spenco gloves–period paragraph. At least back in the old days when they were new and affordable. Haven’t had any in years- probably crap nowadays.

    December 11, 2010 at 12:51 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      During long rides, I often take off my gloves for a few hours. This changes the pressure on my hands by changing the effective diameter of my handlebars. Then I put them back on…

      December 11, 2010 at 8:29 pm
  • Brandon

    Jan, what kind of water bottles are those-where can i buy them? Do the caps work well?

    December 11, 2010 at 7:19 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Those are Soma water bottles. Unfortunately, when you put them in the dishwasher, they distort from the heat. Now they leak when I squeeze them. I like that they don’t leach plastics, but the leaky caps make them pretty useless. I had a Soma bottle from an earlier production run that didn’t distort in the dishwasher…

      December 11, 2010 at 8:33 pm
  • Chris Cullum

    This is an issue I have dealt with on longer rides (600k+). In addition to numbness I have experienced a weak right hand that has made shifting increasingly hard as the ride progressed. I was previously using Campagnolo Ergopower brifters. The weakness and numbness in my hand lasted for weeks after only slowly improving with time. The weakness was such that I could not properly use chopsticks for quite some time. I have recently replaced the Ergo levers with bar-con shifters and new brake levers. I hope the change from brifters will help. I think with brifters the tendency is to spend more time on the hoods due to the proximity to the shifters. I also think the convenience of the shifters leads to more shifting than with downtube or bar end shifters. Unfortunately it is difficult to know for sure if these changes will work before riding a ultra brevet as the issues generally occur only after >600km.

    December 12, 2010 at 12:39 pm
  • Patrick Johnson

    When looking at the position of your brake levers on the bars, I wonder how it can be comfortable covering the brakes from the hoods for extended periods (group rides, heavy traffic), as your position would appear to shift forward 4-6cm and down 2-3cm, seemingly increasing pressure. No? Could you comment?

    December 13, 2010 at 8:03 am
  • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

    In that position, I cannot brake. Car drivers don’t keep a foot on the brake at all times, either. They have trained themselves to switch their foot between pedals quickly. Similarly, it’s quick to change hand positions if you need to brake unexpectedly.
    The “on the ramps” position is not useful when you approach an intersection. In situations where I anticipate having to brake, I get in the drops then to have maximum brake power. Finally, I only ride with groups who are smooth enough so that I don’t need to brake. Riding with groups that lack pacelining skills is a major cause of crashes.

    December 13, 2010 at 8:21 am
  • Andrea B. Matney

    Great advice! From my experience, getting a good, professional bike fit also helps. Once I had the correct bike and it was fitted to ME, and not my body to the bike, many issues dissappeared.

    December 13, 2010 at 9:47 am
  • Vincent Muoneke

    Yes! a problem for long distance riders. The pressure on the nerves leads to occlusion of the “vasa nervorum” or the blood vessels that nourish the nerve, hence the symptoms. The body reacts to all injury by inflammation, and if chronic will lead to scarring around the nerve. The median nerve and its distribution (highlighted in blue)is depicted in the illustration. I tend to get it worse on the ulnar nerve (non highlighted area) on the left side, the ulnar nerve innervates most of the intrinsic muscles of the hand leading to more weakness and clumsiness. If the problem persists it may be worth getting an EMG (Electromyogram) and Nerve Conduction Studies. Surgical release of the nerve may be indicated in bad cases. I believe Jan may agree that the best way to reduce the pressure, though perhaps not the vibrations is good Core strenght.

    December 13, 2010 at 11:18 am
  • Dr Codfish

    What Vin said:
    I think I have probably worked my way through just about every malady known to LD riders. After my first 1000Km event my hands were numb for weeks, (I could have said months but who’d believe that?), parts of my feet also. I undertook a rigorous upper body strengthening routine AND changed my position on the bike by bringing my bars up and back a little more. Sure this made me a little less ‘aero’ but I’m aero like a rhino anyway. I have also found that rolling the bars in the stem clamp a bit so that the tops are no longer parallel to the ground but pointed slightly upwards can help alleviate pressure. These adjustments and fitness regimes helped reduce the pressure on my hands in all postions and thus I no longer experience numbness in my hands.
    Disclaimer: This works for me, but may not for others.

    December 13, 2010 at 11:50 am
  • Dan Connelly

    Nice article! The SRAM road brakes (Apex, Rival, Force, Red) transition smoothly to the handlebars, creating a similar flat region to the bars shown in the photo. I suspect they could be used similarly.
    I suffered numbness in my left pinky for over a year following a bike tour on the rough roads of Laos. I had been advised to use a mountain bike, but that seemed silly, so I used my Ritchey Breakaway road bike instead. 90 psi with 28 mm tires was a bit much, however, for those conditions. A bike like you advocate, with lower pressure, wider tires, would have been perfect. Even so more awareness about hand position may well have prevented my nerve issues.

    December 13, 2010 at 3:06 pm
  • Austex

    The headlamp in the photo appears to be pointed almost straight down …deliberate ?

    December 13, 2010 at 7:38 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Not at all deliberate. On the rougher sections of the gravel roads we had explored the day before, the handlebar bag moved quite a bit, and pushed the light forward. Before the evening came, I readjusted it. This was a test bike – on my own bikes, I mount the headlight underneath the front rack. There, it’s out of the way and protected by the rack.

      December 13, 2010 at 7:41 pm
  • Andrew Kary

    My belief is that some parts of the body are good for bearing weight (including the palm and the ischial tuberosities or seatbones) and others are bad (including the divot next to the heel of the hand where the median nerve is). I try to use drop bars with long tops, and cotton tape with no padding, and then use the tops as my primary hand position. I hold each top in the “behind-the-hoods” position so that it crosses my palm the same way that a baseball-bat would. Based on the same reasoning, I use hard saddles that support my weight only on the seatbones, not on my perineum.
    In spite of this, I still try to move around. Prolonged pressure ANYWHERE causes ischemia (loss of blood supply), and if it goes unrelieved too long eventually it causes pressure ulcers. I stand periodically to restore the blood supply to my butt, and use alternate hand positions such as on-the-hoods. While I have my hands on the hoods, my palms get a break while the bases of my thumbs hold the weight.
    An upright posture can help by taking weight off of the hands too.
    That hand illustration is very helpful! Thanks for maintaining such a high-quality blog.

    December 13, 2010 at 10:28 pm
  • Lovely Bicycle!

    After 30 miles or so, I develop the numb hands problem with every type of handlebar I have tried other than the Nitto Noodle. How would you say the new Grand Bois Maes compare to it?

    December 15, 2010 at 2:15 pm
    • Mark Vande Kamp

      The Noodle was my favorite handlebar until I tried the GB Randonneur bars. The ramps are similar in length, but the compound curve at the “corner” fits and supports my hands better so I am holding the bar with the ball of my thumb rather than the area that impinges on the nerves.
      I’ve ridden much more briefly with the Maes bars, and thought that they felt about the same as the Noodles. My reaction to them was kind of, “Yeah, these are nice” but my reaction to the Randonneur bars was to abandon a perfectly good (and beautiful) custom stem in order to mount them on my bike.

      December 16, 2010 at 2:49 pm
      • Dan Connelly

        It seems the Noodle has that concave (from the rider’s perspective) sweep which causes the wrists to rotate outward when riding on the tops, away from the arms which are angled inward. The GB bars don’t seem to have this sweep. Ritchey uses the same sweep on his Evolution bars. It never made sense to me: if anything, with neutral wrists, it seems the bars should have a convex sweep. Unless the purpose is to move the hoods & hooks closer. But that can be accomplished with a shorter stem.

        December 16, 2010 at 3:05 pm
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        Mark kept the Grand Bois Randonneur handlebars I gave him for testing…even though I wanted it back! The only time that has happened with a product before was the Schmidt Edelux headlight.

        December 16, 2010 at 3:10 pm
  • Lovely Bicycle!

    Thanks for the replies. I have tried the Nitto Randonneur bars, as well as several vintage handlebars with the Randonneur bend, but prefer the Nitto Noodle – which is why I thought that one of the Grand Bois Maes versions, and not the Randonneur, would be the equivalent I am most likely to be comfortable with.

    December 17, 2010 at 2:28 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I agree on the Nitto Randonneur handlebars – see my comments in an earlier entry. The old AVA Randonneur handlebars are so much better that I asked Grand Bois to make a modern version… The difference is in the details of the shape – the AVA/Grand Bois shape supports your hands perfectly on the tops, whereas the Nitto does little more than raise your bars a few millimeters.

      December 17, 2010 at 6:56 am
      • Lovely Bicycle!

        Darn it, this means more handlebars to try!
        Thank you for the feedback .

        December 17, 2010 at 9:31 am

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