Tips for managing carpal tunnel syndrome when cycling

Suffer wrist pain and numbness/pins and needles in your thumb and adjacent fingers when cycling? You could be suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome says sports therapist Kevin James. Here he explains causes, symptoms and management

Anatomy of the carpal tunnel showing the median nerve passing through the tight space it shares with the finger tendons. Credit: staff (2014).

Carpal tunnel syndrome is generally caused by overuse of the wrist. The median nerve, a large nerve that runs through your forearm and into your hand via the carpal tunnel, can be compressed by irritated tendons or other swelling, which’ll result in tingling and numbness in your thumb and adjacent two and a half fingers. It’ll worsen when your wrist is hyperflexed or hyperextended, i.e. gripping your handlebars.


Managing Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

First seek medical advice and then I suggest we look at this problem from two angles: 1. Management pre-bike ride and 2. Management during bike ride.

If we take number 1 first, with all repetitive-type injuries the practice of applying ice to the injured area alongside supportive strapping won’t go amiss. More importantly, I’d carry out a daily routine of stretching the wrist/fingers prior to a ride; 10-15mins on the following stretches:

  • Palms-out wrist stretch
  • Fingers stretch
  • Fingers down forearm stretch
  • Fingers down wrist stretch
  • Finger shake

If you’re unsure how to perform these stretches all good books on stretching will cover the same. I recommend all triathletes/cyclists invest in such a book as stretching and flexibility of major muscle groups, i.e. quads and hamstrings, is common place, but areas such as the wrists and ankles are neglected by athletes.

Finally, if you work on achieving good core strength you won’t have to transfer as much weight through your wrists when gripping onto the bike’s handlebars.

Now, if we look at number 2, there are several important steps you can take to manage/prevent the carpal tunnel problem. Firstly, does your bike fit you? What I mean by this is have you set the bike up properly? Are you on the right-sized frame? Is your saddle at the right height? Are your handlebars too far/near when riding?

A bike fit can cost anything between £70-£130 but will make a huge difference to your comfort, performance and prevention of bike-related repetitive strain injuries. If a bike fit isn’t an option due to finance, take some advice from an experienced club rider – another opinion or two can help.

Secondly, opt to purchase some padded handlebar tape as this’ll aid comfort and negate road vibration.

Thirdly, ensure you wear padded bike gloves/mitts and try to vary your hand position on the bars, i.e. top brake levers on the drops or tri-bars, etc. If these suggestions are still to no avail, seek further medical advice.


Image credit: staff. “Blausen gallery 2014”. Wikiversity Journal of Medicine. DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.010. ISSN 20018762

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