Guide to overcoming wrist pain for cyclists

A reader recently got in touch about wrist pain their husband was experiencing whilst riding and she asked if I had any solutions.

I jumped on our social media to ask what suggestions you had and there were some great tips from readers on Facebook and on Twitter. Thank you to everyone who took the time to add their thoughts.

Wrist pain whilst cycling is fairly common and in almost all cases can be solved.

When you lean forwards, with your weight on your wrists and hands, you may experience everything from pain, tingling or numbness in the hand and wrist. In more extreme, but still common and very treatable cases, pressure on this area can cause Carpel Tunnel Syndrome. This is the compression of a nerve that controls sensation in the hand and fingers.

Here are our top suggestions for ways you can overcome wrist pain whilst cycling:

Strengthen the muscles

Strengthening your wrist muscles is part of the solution. There are various exercises you can do and I’ve had fellow cyclists highly recommend a Powerball, for building up strength over time. This works not just in the wrist but also arms and shoulders.

Get a bike fit

This is the answer to almost any pain or discomfort caused by riding, or even pain caused by something else that is affecting your riding, is to look at bike fit.

When cycling, you’re repeating the same movement hundreds of times, stuck in the same position – so that position needs to be right for your body. A qualified bike fitter will be able to look at the way you’re sitting on the bike, and change it to improve comfort and efficiency.

Tiny movements make a huge difference. Moving a cleat a few mm’s forwards can eliminate knee pain – you’d be amazed. If you’re problems are in your arms, it may be that your saddle to bar drop is to great, pushing extra weight onto your hands and wrists. In this case, they may drop the saddle by 5mm, or raise the bars by adding spacers below the headset.

If your stem is at a negative angle (eg pointing downwards), you might want to try flipping it to give you a positive angle (pointing upwards) – this will again raise your bars, decreasing the pressure on your arms as you are encouraged to lean back, placing pressure on your sit bones instead.

Handlebars quite low, with spacers above could cause pain:

handlebar position stem negative

Try raising the bars, with fewer spacers above the headset:

handlebar position stem

Or, opt for a short, positive angle stem, like this MTB position:

handlebar position

Bike fits can range from ‘your mate, a mirror and a turbo trainer’, to £200 with a professional bike fitter. Shop around, and ask at your local bike shop as many will have a trained fitter in-store. We also published a list of London’s bike fitting studios.

Carbon forks

If your bike doesn’t already have carbon forks, this could be a good upgrade. The majority of modern bikes come with a carbon fork, this is because manufacturers know that vibrations from rough ground can be jarring, and an alloy or steel fork will transfer all of those bumps to the rider’s hands, whilst carbon will absorb it. New carbon forks (such as these M:Part Road Forks) will set you back a little over £100.

New handlebars

It has been suggested that you can also add to the protection from carbon forks by adding carbon handlebars, as well. Only really very high end bikes come with carbon handlebars as standard. A carbon fork will dampen road vibrations before they get to the handlebars, so carbon handlebars are usually more about saving weight. If you’re racing, this could be important, but not so for the average commute – and it’s worth bearing in mind that if you upgrade to carbon handlebars, you’ll have to watch every knock or bash, and replace them after a fall (not so with forks, as these are less likely to suffer the same impact).

What could be more effective would be a change in the shape of your handlebars. Flat bar’s give you very little choice of hand position, meaning you’re stuck in one pose. Swapping to a drop handlebar gives you choice between the drops and hoods – so you can move around, decreasing the likelihood of RSI or wrist pain.

deda-rhm01-road-handlebar

On the other hand, if you have drop handlebars now and find you get tingling from the drop between your bars and saddle, a more upright, flat bar position might help you.

truvativ-stylo-t20-flat-bar

Some riders swear by attaching clip on aero bars to reduce wrist pain, as you can rest on these occasionally to relieve pressure. However, you’re best off using these on rides away from traffic. Personally, I race on a TT bike, but on the rare occasion I’d ride the bike through town, I would not use the aero bars in city traffic:

profile-carbon-strike-aero-bar

New handlebars will set you back as little as £15. Swapping this contact point will make a huge difference to your position, confidence and handling.

Gel padded gloves

If you’re not already wearing gloves with gel padding, and struggling from pain in your hands and wrist, then you should absolutely get some. Gel padded gloves are designed with cushioning exactly where you need it. Clothing brands put a great deal of research into this, and you’ll definitely benefit from a glove upgrade.

Specialized (who also offer a Body Geometry Bike Fit service) put a lot of research into improving comfort for riders. Their answer is the Body Geometry Gel Mitt, which has padding on the grips as well as where the ‘heel’ of the hand sits.

The padding is designed to reduce numbness by relieving pressure from the ulnar nerve – which runs down your arm and to your little finger. The ulnar nerve is the largest  unprotected (by muscle/bone) nerve in the body, and if it is pinched it can cause pain, so this extra protection will make a difference.

Have you made changes to your bike set up to address pain in your hands or arms? Tell us what you did… 

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17 Responses to Guide to overcoming wrist pain for cyclists

  1. Spencer 05/05/2014 at 9:46 am #

    All great advice.

    When I started riding again I suffered from wrist pain, bought some padded gloves which to be honest didn’t make a great deal of difference. Then I changed the angle of my brake levers, wow what a difference!

    The pain lessened and over time has gone away completely. Likely that over the intervening period the muscles in my arms and wrists have built up but dropping the brake levers further from the horizontal (these are on a flat bar, they are now about 45 degrees down) made the greatest difference.

  2. Whitebirdyman 05/05/2014 at 4:00 pm #

    On returning to cycling I had wrist pain on both mountain and road bikes and thought the answer would be to move the saddles forward to reduce the stretch. That did not help, what I needed to do was move the saddles backwards so that more of my weight was behind the bottom bracket, thus reducing the weight on my wrists. Trying this on a trainer, I was able to find a point at which I was almost self supporting when leaning forward with my normal upper body position. This could of course mean using a shorter stem, but I was ok with the slightly more stretched out position so did not need to change.

  3. MJ Ray 06/05/2014 at 8:41 am #

    your weight on your wrists and hands? Surely there should be almost no weight on them if you’ve the right handlebars for you, in the right position?

    I think lots of people would benefit from North Road or Porter bars, but they’re deeply unfashionable and rarely seen outside of cycling hotspots like Cambridge and the fens at the moment, as far as I’ve seen.

    • John Somers 06/05/2014 at 7:03 pm #

      Again it depends on your cycling discipline and where you are cycling…cycling up a hill or requiring a bit more “ommph” to accelerate away from a set of lights etc, most cyclists at one stage or another get their asses off the saddle and “stand” on the pedals with a fair amount of weight on their wrists, on the bars.

      Over 90% of the pain in the wrists (or knees or back etc) is down to poor positioning, sometimes down to riding the incorrect size of bike but in the majority of the case just down to positioning, either of the rider or components such as brakes or shifters.

      Though due to two crushed discs in my lumber spine I did have to put a slightly shorter stem on to one bike of mine due to increasing discomfort in my lower back…reduced it by 25mm and it made all the difference in the world. Which is good reminder that either due to injury or just increasing age our bodies change change a lot faster than our bikes…so do remember positioning should never be set in stone, it may vary a little bit over time.

  4. John Somers 06/05/2014 at 6:42 pm #

    With shaped grips such as those manufactured by Ergon, when set up correctly can really deal with a lot of this pain (on straight bars) because you must have your wrists “straight” where they are strongest, the tendons are not overly stressed (either under tension or compression).

    This link does show extremes of position which should always be avoided but it is a clear example of how things such as the incorrect positioning of brake and gear levers alone can cause you lots of problems.

    http://www.ergon-bike.com/us/en/ergonomics

    Yes there are still occasions that I do get a little tingling in the ends of my fingers but that is usually after 40-50miles in the saddle and points the way to either a quick break or change in position (even a quick slurp of water can help to relieve this for a short while).

    Basically if you are in pain when cycling, it is your body telling you something is amiss somewhere…and the longer it takes for this pain to come on is usually indicative that it needs tweaking…remember that you bike and it’s fit ages at a very different rate to your body! :-)

    • Mik 07/05/2014 at 10:54 am #

      With flat bars we’ve had success with both brake lever movement and going to more ergonomic grips. In my wife’s bike we ended up with grips incorporating stubby bar ends which allowed her to change position around a bit. All nice and easy things to try.

    • Rich 09/05/2014 at 4:36 pm #

      Ergon grips sorted out wrist pain for me – recommended!

  5. Phil 07/05/2014 at 1:07 pm #

    North Road bars, a stem extender and as many spacers as I could fit under the extender allow me to sit upright. I don’t get any wrist pain from pressure, lower back pain from being crouched over the bike, or neck pain from trying to peer forwards in a profoundly unnatural position. I can go as fast as I need to away from the lights, and my vantage point allows me to spot potential hazards down the road. As for hills, my Mundo is set up for a similar position, and I haul 100lb+ loads up to my allotment.

  6. Rideon 08/05/2014 at 2:39 am #

    Recent discussion with friend who was test riding some new handlebars with a 25 degree sweep lead to our discussion of similar considerations. On a flat handlebar having the brake levers parallel to the ground causes the wrist to bend too much when grabbing the lever. Adjusting the lever down slightly provides a more natural reach and grab without unnecessarily riding with a bent wrist. I found some very good information that has helped others to identify their own riding style making it easier to customize one’s bike fit.

    http://www.biketourings.com/3/post/2014/05/ergonomic-bike-comfort-and-two-free-ebooks-by-rideon.html

  7. Hugh 09/05/2014 at 10:49 am #

    Interesting that so much focus seems to be on buying expensive upgrades (carbon handlebars? Seriously?). Surely you should start with the cheapest solutions which are (i) tweak your position until you get comfortable and (ii) the one that no-one has mentioned yet, strengthen your core muscles. A strong core will support your upper body weight in any position thus eliminating the need to put much weight through your wrists.

    Doing a series of planks every night for 20 minutes should be enough to develop a really strong core. You will know it has worked when you can do this: find a reasonably steep hill (>5%) and ride up it full gas with your backside firmly in the saddle and your hands just lightly resting on the tops of the ‘bars. If you wobble or need to grip the ‘bars, your core needs more work.

    A strong core also has the added benefits of reducing lower back pain, increasing power transfer into the pedals, and making you look buff.

    As the great Eddy Merckx once said: “Don’t buy upgrades, ride up grades”

  8. Paul 09/05/2014 at 11:19 am #

    These things can be very personal so this is just my experience…

    saddle angle and position are also very important – if you’re not ‘neutral’ on the saddle your weight will be transferred forwards through your arms and wrists.

    I found a longer and lower stem actually improved the situation for shoulder and back pain over short and higher – counter intuitive I know.

    For my wrist pain and hand numbness I found that it was down to an irritated nerve up in my spine – some physio and work on my posture throughout the day (not just on the bike) sorted that out over a fairly long period of time.

  9. David 11/05/2014 at 2:09 pm #

    I had this problem when I started cycling 30 years ago. The answer was spongy handlebar grips. They very effectively cushion the impact on the hands and wrists. They appear to have gone out of fashion these days but you can still get them. I thoroughly recommend them as a cheap and easy solution.

  10. Alehouse Rock 12/05/2014 at 12:38 am #

    [[[[[ Wrist pain? Nah…NECK pain! But even more off topic (sorry folks), there’s a piece on Andreas’s blog, from “Ride-it” on “How to get used to clipless pedals”, for first-timers. However, there’s no CAPCHA to copy, so no further comment can be sent, which is a shame considering how dangerous trapped feet can be, especially in stop/go traffic.
    So B4 using any shoe-to-pedal device for the first time, I’d suggest riding–and coming to a dead stop–on a grassy area like your local common, and do that 25 times before riding in traffic. We can’t carry a dirty-great beanbag around to fall on, like that joker in the video, can we? When I returned to cycling after a 7-year absence (the shame of it!), I stopped at a traffic light and fell sideways onto the road like a newbie (which I ain’t—I’m an ex-club rider). And it was my RIGHT foot I’d forgotten to release from the pedal, so any moving vehicle in my lane might have deleted me for good. I was lucky…..don’t do like I did. Practice on grass. Happy landings!
    A.R.

  11. Will 12/05/2014 at 1:22 pm #

    You have overlooked one of the most important techniques when cycling to reduce wrist fatigue, which leads to wrist pain and injuries and it’s a simple one: use your STOMACH muscles; support your upper body and head weight with your core instead of your shoulders, arms and wrists. An easy way to test if your using enough core to support your body on the saddle is to separate your shoulders and lower them…..far too many cyclists ride around with their shoulders in the ears and arms tensed, it pains me to see this and it could be so much more comfortable with a better posture!

  12. Neil 13/05/2014 at 12:38 pm #

    Bike fit, best £50 I spent plus it was knocked off the price of the bike! You take you cycling shoes and the fitter should ask you what type of riding you do and what bikes you are interested in. They should then get you on the jig, take measurements and make bike choice based upon you and the proposed bikes geometry.

  13. Jesper 24/05/2014 at 6:37 pm #

    An upright bicycle is often not as hard on wrists and shoulder/neck. This would naturally depend on the distance you ride and your personal preference.

  14. Scot Jarchow 10/07/2014 at 8:27 pm #

    Just a note, the photo of the Specialized Amira bike, I hope you were using it just a spacer example. If that Specialized stem is adjustable (looks like it), you can not have spacer above it the stem, you risk snapping the steer tube on the fork. http://service.specialized.com/collateral/ownersguide/new/assets/pdf/Stem—Carbon-Road-Stem-Instruction-Guide.pdf

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