How to avoid wrist pain when cycling

Prevent pain, numbness and tingling in your hands and wrists by improving your bike fit

(Image credit: mike prior)

Wrist pain is one of the most common cycling complaints. It is sometimes known as handlebar palsy and it occurs when there is compression of the ulnar nerve which runs to your little finger and ring finger. This can lead to pain, numbness and tingling, and it can leave your hand feeling weak, making it harder to brake or change gear.

As well as compression of the nerve these symptoms can also be caused by hyperextension of the wrist, for instance if you are riding in the drops for prolonged periods of time.

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms then there are several self-help things you can try at home – but if they do not resolve the problem then it's best to visit a physiotherapist. If your wrist and hand pain occurs off the bike as well as on then it may be related to other factors such as desk or computer work.

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Preventing wrist pain using bike fit

If you have any aches and pains when cycling, particularly if they only exist whilst you are on your bike, the first step is to look at your bike fit.

There are several reasons why you might be putting too much weight through your hands and wrists. A saddle that is too high will be throwing your weight forward, and handlebars that are too low may cause you to rest more weight through your wrist. A bike that is slightly too big, with a top tube that is too long, will leave you stretched out and can also strain your wrists.

You should not be leaning any weight through your hands and wrists; check this by riding on flat roads and shallow climbs with your hands only lightly resting on the bars. If you feel you are falling forward, then your position definitely needs checking.

Handlebar height and reach: how to get it right

If your bike is well fitted but you are still having pain, take a look at how you are holding the bars. Consciously relax your hands, soften your elbows and drop your shoulders, and try to avoid gripping the bars too tightly. Your wrists should be relaxed and not overly flexed or extended.

Change your hand position frequently during a ride using the tops of the bars, the hoods and the drops, as each of these aligns your wrist slightly differently. Anatomic bars offer a wide variety of hand positions; some people enjoy the flat tops of wing-shaped aero bars, but others with small hands may prefer the more traditional narrow bar. It is worth experimenting to see what suits you.

If you have small hands, make sure your levers are angled so that you can cover them without strain; it may be necessary to use a shim or insert to bring the ends of the levers closer to the bar. This will also give you more control on descents.

How gloves and bar tape can reduce wrist pain

Gloves are part of your protective kit and should always be worn to prevent gravel rash to your palms in the event of a fall, but padded gloves can also help to alleviate wrist pain. Padding around the base of the thumb can help take pressure off your ulnar never and prevent soreness.

>>> The best handlebar tape, and how to wrap it

Padded bar tape with gel or foam inserts underneath can give added protection from road vibration, another contributing factor in hand pain.