Hand Numbness or Weakness While Cycling? Try These Tips.

Hand numbness can be a serious problem for some cyclists, especially those of us who love long distances. I’ve been there myself, many times.

Once, late at night in the middle of a bikepacking race, I spent fifteen minutes trying to unbuckle my helmet. Almost had to sleep in it! And after biking across the U.S. I struggled for months to open food wrappers and tie my shoes.

For me, hand numbness and weakness pop up in the middle of intense long-distance bikepacking trips when I’m pedaling all day, every day. But cyclists can potentially experience these problems on any length ride, with any style of bike or handlebars.

Two commonly cited issues are Cyclist’s Palsy (or Ulnar Tunnel Syndrome) and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, both stemming from compression of nerves in the hand and wrist. Damage to the ulnar nerve causes issues in the pinky and ring finger, while the median nerve (which passes through the Carpal Tunnel) affects the thumb and two neighboring fingers.

Numbness is the classic symptom, but often there are other issues too: weakness, a feeling of sensitivity, or pain. Nerve issues may be mixed with muscle or connective tissue fatigue or strain from shifting or braking. It can get messy!

I’m not a doctor, but in my experience a precise diagnosis isn’t needed to make improvements in your hand numbness, weakness, or pain while cycling. If your case turns out to be stubborn it’s definitely worth seeing a professional. In the meantime, here are actionable steps you can take on your very next ride.

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Don’t Panic

First of all, be comforted by the fact that most cycling-related nerve damage heals on its own. It can be slow (my worst case took months) but with enough rest and rehab your full hand function should return.

In my experience, one way to heal cycling hand issues faster is to exercise my hands in other ways. My weight lifting program has helped rebuild my grip strength after a long bike trip, and my yoga practice keeps my entire body healthy and mobile. Nerves travel a long way through the body to reach our hands, so it can’t hurt to keep everything running smoothly along the way.

You should also know that some people are more prone to hand issues from cycling. Some of us have narrower passages and other anatomic variations that make it challenging to avoid problems no matter how hard we try.

If you struggle with nerve issues more than your riding partners do, it’s not necessarily your fault. You’ll just need to take some extra steps to optimize your setup (more on that below).

Shake it Out

Let’s start with the simplest and easiest change you can make: stay loose. If you tend to death-grip the bars, remind yourself often to lighten up.

When your hands are on the bars, don’t grip any harder than you need to and avoid locking out your elbows. Make a habit of taking one hand off the bars when it’s safe to do so. Dangle it, swing it, make big arm circles, clench and extend your fingers, and shake out your hands.

While you’re at it, shrug your shoulders and gently roll your neck too. Tension in the neck and upper back can contribute to clenching in the hands, and is also just plain uncomfortable on long rides.

If you ride with drop bars or any other setup that allows for multiple hand positions (more on this below), rotate through different hand positions often to give your nerves, muscles, and connective tissues a rest.

Drop handlebars offer many different hand positions, and using them all will help stave off numbness and pain.

Grip Ergonomics

In addition to keeping a gentle grip on the bars, pay attention to the alignment of your hands and wrists. In particular, keep your wrist angle as straight and neutral as possible. You want to avoid any sharp angles between your forearm and hand, in any plane.

Be mindful of symmetry too. Are you subtly putting more weight on one hand or the other? The asymmetric ways we shift or brake can lead to asymmetric posture and grip, which is bad for our hands and the rest of the body too. My hand numbness from cycling is usually asymmetric, and I’m sure the way I shift is partly to blame.

Though not typically considered a cause of nerve problems specifically, I’ve found that brake and shift ergonomics can contribute to general hand discomfort from cycling. Try adjusting the position of your brake and shift levers on the bars so these actions are as comfortable as possible.

On drop bars you can also adjust the tilt of the hoods by rotating the bar in the stem clamp. It can be tricky to find a lever and bar position that’s comfy for all the different hand positions at once, so think about which positions you spend the most time in and optimize for those.

Regardless of which handlebar type and hand position you’re using, try to keep your wrist straight and avoid sharp angles between your hand and forearm.

Bike Fit and Posture

A poor bike fit can wreak all kinds of havoc, like putting too much pressure on your hands or forcing them to grip at an awkward angle. You can find many resources online to help with basic bike fitting, but stubborn issues may call for a visit to an in-person bike fitter.

In the meantime, here are a few obvious issues to watch out for.

Saddle tilted nose down: This is a common culprit and very easy fix. If you’ve tilted your saddle nose too far downward, perhaps in an effort to deal with saddle sore issues, it can feel like you’re constantly sliding forward. This leads to pushing against your handlebars to stay upright, putting more pressure on your hands and making nerve issues more likely.

Bars too low (or too high): An aggressively forward-leaning posture can put too much weight on the hands. Try moving a couple headset spacers to beneath the bars or switching to bars with some rise. On the other side of the spectrum, bars positioned way too high can lead to issues with wrist angle.

Bars too far forward (or back): In conjunction with bar height, you’ll also want to fine-tune the “reachiness” of your cockpit. You can’t change your bike’s top tube length but you can use a shorter or longer stem to make small adjustments.

Bike fit is complex and highly individual, and those are just a few simplified ideas. I recommend visiting a bike fitter if your hand problems don’t resolve.

Handlebar Types and Accessories

This is a biggie! Some people only have hand numbness when cycling with drop bars, and others only with flat bars. While it’s certainly possible to get creative and mountain bike with drop bars or road bike with flat bars, most people want to stick with the handlebar style that’s typical for their riding.

Fortunately there are still some ways to change your handlebar setup without resorting to nontraditional choices.

If you ride with drops, consider wider and more flared drop bars like those typically used for gravel riding or bikepacking. These can help put your wrists at a more natural angle, especially when riding in the drops or hooks. They offer extra leverage as a bonus, which can increase confidence when riding rougher surfaces.

Coast handlebars pointing down red dirt road in central Oregon
These gravel handlebars flare outward for an ergonomic position that may help with hand numbness.

On mountain bikes, today’s extra-wide wide flat bars can lead to an unnatural wrist angle that causes problems on long rides. Consider changing to flat bars with more backsweep, for example the SQlab 30x 16 degree, for a more ergonomic position without much performance tradeoff.

Another option is to shorten the ends of your flat bars slightly, especially if you have narrow shoulders. Yes this reduces leverage somewhat, but you’ll likely get used to it (and fit more easily between closely spaced trees too!).

It’s a little hard to see with all the bikepacking bags, but these flat bars have 16 degrees of backsweep which allows a more neutral wrist angle.

The other issue with flat bars: fewer options for rotating between hand positions. For a cheap and simple way to add an extra hand position to flat bars, try MTB bar ends. I use Cane Creek Ergo Control bar ends on my bikepacking bike and the second hand position works wonders for long days of riding. (Read more: Why Add Bar Ends to Your Mountain Bike)

Bar ends add a second hand position to flat handlebars.

If you just can’t get comfy with either drop bars or flat bars, consider alt bars like the Jones Loop H-Bar. These usually take the place of flat bars, but depending on your bike it may be possible to convert from drop bars. They usually offer more hand positions and generous backsweep, both very helpful for preventing hand issues while cycling.

Jones Loop H-Bars are an alternative to mountain bike handlebars, but with more hand positions and backsweep.

On both drop and flat bar setups some long-distance riders swear by adding aero bars. Traditionally they help you tuck into a faster aerodynamic position for racing or headwinds. More importantly for casual riders, aero bars provide an extra position that takes weight off your hands and lets your upper body relax.

Dampening Vibration with Tapes, Gels, Grips, and Gloves

Some nerve issues are caused by pressure and vibration. In this case a soft cushy contact point often helps to dampen the vibration.

With drop handlebars, look for extra-thick bar tape or gel inserts to put under the tape. You could also double wrap the bars with standard tape. Several readers of this site have recommended RedShift Cruise Control grips for a more comfortable drop bar configuration.

On flat bars, make sure you’re using a high quality set of grips in good condition. Foam grips like the Wolf Tooth Fat Paw can help cushion hands and dampen vibration (I love them on my mountain bike, though they do wear out a bit faster than standard grips).

A good pair of cycling gloves can help make up for deficits in handlebar cushioning. If you’re prone to hand numbness while cycling, spring for a higher-tier glove with gel inserts like the Pearl Izumi Elite Gel Glove. The pads are designed to cushion key areas of your hand and absorb vibration, and also create space in the right places to take pressure off nerves.

Wrapping your handlebars with thick tape, or two layers of regular tape, helps absorb vibration and cushion your hands.

Tires, Suspension, and Carbon

If the cheaper and easier solutions above don’t help with your hand pain or numbness, it might be time to fork over some money for… a new fork.

But wait! Before changing your fork, first try changing your tires. A wider, higher-volume tire run at slightly lower pressure can go a long way toward absorbing bumps and chatter.

For fans of gravel and other bumpy surfaces, hand problems can be exacerbated by vibration and impact transmitted through fork and handlebars. A suspension fork is the classic solution for mountain bikers, but these add expense, weight, and maintenance considerations and generally aren’t compatible with non-MTB bikes.

Rigid carbon forks can also help thanks to carbon fiber’s vibration damping properties. Personally I love the ride feel of a carbon fork on a steel or titanium frame. They’re not cheap (see examples here) but can be a worthwhile investment in your comfort. They’ll also cut a couple pounds off your bike weight compared to steel. Worth it!

Close up of mountain bike suspension fork from behind front wheel
Suspension forks, common on mountain bikes, absorb bumps before the force is transferred to your hands.
Close up of mountain bike tire and rigid carbon fork on forest trail
Rigid carbon forks, popular on gravel and road bikes, help absorb vibration.

The material and construction of your handlebars also makes a difference. Some people swear by carbon fiber handlebars for reducing vibration, while others find them too stiff (and/or too expensive). Cheaper alloy bars are generally the worst, though a well-engineered alloy bar can do pretty well.

Your stem is also worth considering, as it’s another link in the chain transmitting vibration from the ground to your hands. I know a few riders who swear by a suspension stem (Redshift ShockStop) to ease the impact of bumpy terrain.

Strength and Stability

We’ve talked about all the ways you can adjust your bike to help with hand numbness while cycling, but why should we expect our bikes to do all the adjusting? We should meet them halfway.

A strong and stable body, especially the core, can help with hand issues and all kinds of other issues. Weak core engagement puts too much weight through the hands, while a strong core can help you stay light in front. I’ve been told to imagine playing the piano with your hands as you ride, or try lifting your hands off the bars without changing your body position.

Upper body strength and stability are also critical. As cyclists we often assume it’s all in the legs, but I’ve been amazed by how much a basic upper body strength routine helps my comfort on the bike. Strong and stable muscles in your shoulders, back, chest, and arms will go a long way toward good ergonomics and a strong but gentle grip on the handlebars.

Lastly, if you’re new to cycling or recently changed to a new bike setup, give it some time. Your body needs to adjust to a new position and build the strength it requires. Your hand numbness and other problems may fade over time, especially if you’re mindful of posture and ergonomics.

More Bike Resources

If you found this helpful, you might also enjoy these:

Or visit the cycling and bikepacking sections for lots more.

About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa, founder of Exploring Wild. I’ve traveled over 20,000 miles by bike and still can’t stop planning my next ride (and helping you plan yours). Pavement and panniers or singletrack and seat bag, I love it all. On my bike I feel free. Learn more about me here.

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    3 thoughts on “Hand Numbness or Weakness While Cycling? Try These Tips.”

    1. I have also found that the Kinect suspension stem helps with vibration. It will add some weight but the benefits outweighs the weight penalty. I also use SQ Labs inner bar ends on 30 degree alt bars for another hand position.

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