Welcome to our Ask a Mechanic column where our expert mechanic Daniel Slusser answers your bike maintenance questions. If you have a question for Daniel, please post it on our Facebook Wall or e-mail Daniel directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Today’s column features numerous solutions to hand numbness including proper bike fit, glove selection, and a frank discussion on handlebar tape.
While searching for a solution online for numb hands I came across your blog on numb butts and thought I would ask you if you had any solutions for my problem? From: Logan
I feel your pain… or lack thereof. I actually have a problem with my right hand going numb if I stay in the hoods for too long. This problem started with a severe wrist sprain that was the result of a high speed mountain bike crash. In my case I haven’t been able to find a full cure but I have found relief. For others who don’t have an injury to overcome, like I do, you can cure this problem but it will take some experimentation.
First off, you need to change hand positions frequently. Adjusting your position every 2-5 miles can really help. With drop bars this is an easy fix. If you have flat bars you might want to pick up a pair of bar ends to give you another option. You can also move your hands close to the stem to mix things up. You might even want to wrap handlebar tape on that area of the handlebar to improve grip and comfort.
Proper wrist position is critical. Don’t let your hand fold backward to create a 90 degree angle to your forearm. This is a textbook cause of carpel tunnel syndrome and the numbness you are experiencing. Keep your wrist straight and your hands in line with your forearms and this alone will often solve most hand numbness problems.
A proper bike fit will do wonders. Many hand numbness problems are the result of supporting too much of your body weight with your hands. A higher handlebar position and /or a shorter stem might do the trick. Your saddle may be also too high which can place too much weight on your hands. A general guideline for saddle height is that your knee should be slightly bent when your foot is at the bottom of the pedal stroke and your ankle is in a normal pedaling position while seated on the saddle.
Saddle position is important too. If the nose of your saddle is pointed downward, that places a huge amount of strain on your arms and hands that have to handle more body weight in order to keep you from sliding forward on the saddle. If you are too uncomfortable with the saddle level, then you need a different saddle. We have made a couple of videos on saddle selection and saddle fit that can help you to make a good decision on the right saddle for you.
The right amount of padding on your handlebars is also helpful. However, most people mistakenly believe that this is a “cure all” for hand numbness. It is not. Without fixing the underlying fit issues already discussed, improved padding is only treating the symptoms. Most folks reach for thick gel padding to put under their bar tape. I believe that this is a mistake. Gel is great for eliminating vibration and if that is the source of your problems, then go for it. It is my opinion however that handlebar tape that is too soft (usually because there is a gel pad underneath) can more easily conform to the hand and block off circulation thereby causing numbness. My favorite handlebar tape is Lizard Skin’s DSP tape. I suggest their new 3.2mm thick DSP tape (their thickest offering) because it helps to build up the diameter of the handlebar and spread out some of the pressure on your hands. DSP tape has a medium/soft density to it, but isn’t gushy like gel, so it won’t cause the circulation problems that sometimes occur with gel pads.
My last suggestion (but not the least important one) is to purchase ergonomically designed gloves. Many models are made specifically to combat hand numbness by placing thin pads at the base of the palm that straddle the ulnar nerve. This nerve runs down the middle of the heel of your palm is the same nerve that is pinched off by carpel tunnel syndrome and is the one that is responsible for your numbness too (assuming you don’t have underlying nerve damage in your neck or shoulders). Some examples of gloves that feature this type of padding are the Capo MSR SF Pittards gloves, Capo Enzo gloves, Castelli Pro gloves, Giro Bravo gloves, Giro Monaco glove, and the Pearl Izumi Select Gel gloves. There are many more out there, but these are a few that I like.
Here is what worked best for me. I picked up Thomson’s new carbon fiber KFC One handlebar and wrapped it with the Lizard Skins DSP 2.5mm tape. The shorter reach, compact drop and tight bend of the uniquely shaped KFC One bars really helped to take a lot of pressure off of my hands. The vibration damping qualities of the carbon fiber handlebar and the DSP tape helped as well. I can’t guarantee that this will work for you but it has really helped me. Keep working at it and you will find a solution. If you’ve tried everything without success, it might be time to consult a neurologist.
Daniel Slusser is a professional bicycle mechanic with over ten years of experience. He holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from HSU and a master’s degree in history from Cal Poly. When he is not riding, wrenching, or writing he enjoys spending time with his wife and two children.