One of the most common complaints I hear from cyclists and triathletes is hand numbness while riding. The symptoms can vary from mild numbness in a few fingers, to complete lack of feeling radiating up the arms. Sometimes called “Cyclist Palsy,” hand numbness usually results from compression on the ulnar nerve (resulting in numbness in the pinky and ring finger), or the median nerve (resulting in numbness in the thumb, index, and middle finger). If left unresolved, the inflammation from nerve compression can worsen and symptoms will last well after you are done with your ride. I don’t know about you, but I like to have feelings in my hands when I am trying to reach for that bottle of recovery drink post ride.
The most common cause and easiest to fix reason for hand numbness is from gripping the bars too tight, or not varying your hand position throughout a ride. I recommend that cyclists relax their hands on the bar and keep their fingers loose in most situations. Save the white knuckles for those situations where you are riding through that rock garden or over the local cobbled section. Also, moving your hands slightly throughout a ride can relieve pressure points and help keep your hands relaxed. It is all too easy to get locked into one position on the bike and not vary it for a 2 hour ride. Try holding on to anything for 2 hours and see if your hands don’t go partially numb. If you don’t feel comfortable moving your hands around then it might be more of a general fit issue (see below!).
Another common cause of hand numbness is having too much weight on your hands. Fore and aft weight distribution on the bike is extremely important in overall comfort on the bike and can have a huge impact on hand numbness. Many cyclists feel like this is just a case of the bars being too low, but saddle position being too far forward, too high, or the angle of the saddle being too far down can also have a huge impact on how much weight you are carrying on your hands. Making sure your fit is as balanced as possible should always be your first step in trying to eliminate hand numbness. It is also important to keep in mind that core strength is also a factor here, and having a cycling position that is taking into account the athlete’s ability to support their upper-body is a huge factor in finding that balanced position.
It isn’t uncommon for cyclists to experience numbness in one hand versus the other as well. This can often result from a cyclist having some sort of hip rotation and not sitting squarely on the bike. Just like I stated above, the first step here is to dial in all the normal fit parameters including how well the feet are supported. Unsupported arch or forefoot collapse can lead to internal rotation of the leg, changing hip orientation, and leading to an unbalanced position on the bike. That can cause an athlete to carry more weight in one hand versus the other, and potentially result in hand numbness in only one hand.
What about gloves?! From my experience, gloves can often be a cause of hand numbness as well as help. Gloves that have a lot of padding at the base of the palm right over the ulnar or median nerve can often lead to more compression and hand numbness. In my experience, gel padding seems to worse in this regard than general foam padding. General even padding, or no padding, seems to work better for most people. There are also new gloves designed by hand-specialist orthopedic surgeon Dr. Kyle Bickel M.D. and made by Specialized called Grail gloves. The gloves only have padding in the center of the palm to even out the pressure across the hand and reducing compression on the ulnar and median nerves. I have seen mixed results with these gloves but they are definitely worth trying if you have already gone through a proper bike fit.
In all of these solutions it is important to keep in mind that if you have been experiencing hand numbness for a while and experiencing symptoms off the bike, it may take a few weeks for any inflammation in the nerves to calm down to really see the full effects of the changes. If these fixes are not helping with the symptoms or you are experiencing persistent numbness radiating up your arms past the wrist I would recommend seeing your doctor to make sure there isn’t a nerve issue in the upper back or shoulder.