A large number of cyclists experience pain in their hands and wrists while cycling. A 1995 study of cycling overuse injuries found that 31% reported hand/wrist discomfort. But does wrist mobility – or lack thereof – play a role?
Wrist mobility refers to how easily we can move our wrists and depends on both flexibility and strength. Unlike other simpler joints, the wrist moves in three planes: flexion and extension (bending forward and backward), radial and ulnar deviation (side-to-side), and supination and pronation (twisting or rotation).
The normal range of motion of the wrist is 73° of flexion, 71° of extension, 19° of radial deviation (towards the thumb), 33° of ulnar deviation (toward the little finger), 140° of supination (palm facing up) and 60° of pronation (palm down). A common way to end up with poor mobility is from a traumatic injury, such as a fracture – something not uncommon in cycling!
Wrist pain caused by cycling usually results from compression and irritation of the nerves around the hand and wrist, the two most common being carpal tunnel (median nerve) syndrome and ulnar nerve palsy. Both can lead to pain, tingling and numbness in the hands, fingers and wrists and, in some severe cases, muscle weakness in the hand and fingers. It is more likely to occur during long rides and long-distance or multi-day events.
There may also be problems with the mobility of the nerves themselves. This can originate in the neck, with tight muscles around the neck and shoulders, for example due to stiffness or poor posture, preventing the nerves from moving freely, which in turn causes problems in the wrists and hands. This is known as double crush syndrome.
How can poor wrist mobility affect my cycling?
In cycling, wrist position is more important for comfort than mobility or absolute range. It’s even more important than the amount of load passing through your wrists. We rarely need a full range of wrist motion in cycling.
Our wrists should be placed in a relatively neutral position for most of the cycling, with the functional wrist position being approximately 20° of wrist extension and slight ulnar deviation.
However, there are some situations where a little more mobility is required and the lack of movement can cause problems such as discomfort, difficulty holding the handlebars or difficulty accessing the levers and brakes.
Driving downhill is one example, as it requires more radial deviation (bending the wrist to the thumb side) to reach the levers and brakes. This will be exacerbated if the caps are not placed in an ideal position.
Flat handlebar bikes are another example, especially in mountain bikes. Wider handlebars offer more stability and control. However, the wider the bars, the more radial deflection needed, and a lack of reach can result in compensations with your elbows and shoulders.
This also applies to other bikes with flat handlebars such as commuters, hybrids or touring bikes.
Flat bars may also require more wrist extension to reach the brake levers. Again this can be fixed by placing the brakes at a proper angle when assembling the bike. A bike that has twist shifters to change gears will also require more wrist mobility.
So, if it’s not poor mobility, then what’s causing my wrist discomfort?
Poor bike fit is a major cause of wrist pain in cycling, especially when it comes to weight distribution on the bike. Riding too far forward or nose down will place excessive load on the upper limbs and can cause nerve compression in the wrists.
Both excessive reaching and excessive falling can contribute to wrist pain by putting more weight on the handlebars and putting more traction on the nerve. Too much saddle height can cause pelvic instability (as well as increase the fall) and require bracing of the upper limbs to stabilize.
On a road bike, handlebars that are too wide can cause the rider to bend their wrists back (hyperextension) to try to achieve a narrower shoulder position. Less commonly, excessively narrow handlebars, for example when trying to achieve an aerodynamic front profile, can force the wrists to operate in excessive flexion.
On an MTB (or other flat handlebar bike) a curved bar, bar ends or ergo grips can keep the wrist in a more neutral position. The position of the brake levers is also important to ensure that the wrists are not excessively flexed or extended.
Road handlebars that are rolled to angle the hoods up (often used to reduce reach and drop) can cause wrist hyperextension in reaching the levers when riding downhill. Conversely, caps placed too far on the handlebars can cause excessive ulnar deviation when riding with the caps and lead to wrist pain.
Finally, insufficient core muscles and an inability to maintain a forward lean while pedaling can increase the load on the hands.
How do I prevent wrist pain?
In addition to ensuring the fit of your bike is optimal, there are other options to help prevent wrist pain while pedaling.
Padded handlebar tape and gel padding via a quality pair of cycling gloves can reduce compression or vibration where your wrists contact the handlebars. Riding wider tires with lower pressures can also dampen road harshness and reduce vibration through your wrists and hands.
Regularly changing hand positions during a long run from caps to peaks to drops will also help reduce pressure. On an MTB or touring bike, having more than one hand position option, such as mounting handlebar ends or bull horns, will allow for this. Relaxing your elbows and shoulders and trying not to overgrip are also helpful strategies.
Wrist mobility exercises
If mobility is an issue, whether it’s in the wrist, neck/upper back, or nerve, mobility exercises for the problem area can help.
1) Wrist extension:
Place your palms on a table in front of you. Lean forward until you feel a stretch in your wrists, making sure your palms remain flat on the table. Stay in this position
2) Wrist Flexion:
Extend your arm straight out in front of you with your palm facing down. With the other hand, he applies light pressure to the back of your wrist and hold.
3) Radial/ulnar deviation of the wrist:
Place your elbows on a table and join your fingers with your palms. Bend your wrists away from you, then towards you, making sure you don’t twist your wrists or move them left and right.
4) Supination/pronation of the wrist:
Using the same position as above and making sure your wrists are as straight as possible, rotate your hands so the back of one hand is facing you, then again so the back of the other hand is facing you. of you. Bring your elbows together to allow for more movement.
5) Upper Back Stretch:
Using a foam roller or rolled up towel, support your head with your hands and extend onto the roll keeping your ribs down.
6) Sliding of the median nerve:
Stand with arm out to side at shoulder height with palm facing up and wrist bent back. Continuously bend and straighten your elbow for 30 seconds. When your arm is straight you should feel a pulling/stretching sensation along the front of your arm – do not hold the stretch but continue to bend and straighten your elbow.
7) Gliding of the ulnar nerve:
Using the same position and bending and straightening the elbow as above, but this time with the palm facing down and the wrist bent back. When your arm is bent you should feel a pulling/stretching sensation around the elbow and on the outside of the hand/fingers.
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