Hand numbness while cycling can be a serious problem. Once, late at night in the middle of a bikepacking race, I spent fifteen minutes trying to unbuckle my bike helmet. I almost had to sleep in it! And after a brisk bike ride across the U.S. I struggled for months to open food wrappers and tie my shoes. There’s nothing like losing the use of your opposable thumbs to make you thankful for typical human motor skills.
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. 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 to prevent or heal hand numbness from cycling.
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First of all, know that most cycling-related nerve damage heals on its own. It may take months if you’ve really done a number on your poor nerves during an intense period of riding, but with enough rest and rehab full hand function should return. I’ve really trashed my hands on a couple occasions, but they’re good as new now. So don’t panic, it’s probably not permanent.
In my experience (not a doctor!) the best way to heal my hand numbness from cycling is to 1) ride less for awhile, and 2) use my hands in other ways. I believe my basic weight lifting program and yoga practice helped rebuild grip strength and keep 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.
Also know that some people are more prone to hand numbness from cycling than others. Some of us have narrower passages and other anatomic variations that make it challenging to avoid nerve issues from biking, 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 handlebars, keep reminding yourself 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 (don’t fall!), 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.
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, whether up or down or side to side.
Be mindful of symmetry too — are you subtly putting more weight on one hand or the other? Patterns in how 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.
Bike Fit and Posture
A poor bike fit can wreak all kinds of havoc, such as 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.
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.
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 and needing to push against your handlebars to stay upright. This leads to too much pressure on your hands, which makes nerve issues more likely. Try a level seat and look to other ways of solving your saddle problems.
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 understandably 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. Also remember to rotate between all the hand positions on your drop bars, as this is one of their main advantages for cycling ergonomics.
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 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!).
The other issue with flat bars is their single hand position. Unlike drop bars where you can ride in the hoods, drops, hooks, or tops, with flat bars you’re mostly stuck with your hands on the grips. 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)
Lastly, 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 to choose from and generous backsweep for a straighter wrist angle.
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. But more importantly for casual riders, aero bars provide an extra position that takes weight off your hands and lets your upper body relax.
Tapes, Gels, Grips, and Gloves
Since nerve issues can be caused by pressure and vibration, a soft cushy contact point for your hands often helps. 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.
On flat bars the grips can be changed, so 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, though they wear out faster than standard grips.
Lastly, 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 while also creating space in the right places to take pressure off nerves.
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.
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 impressive 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! 🙂
The material and construction of your handlebars also matters, not just their shape. 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. There’s even such a thing as a suspension stem (Redshift ShockStop) which some riders swear by.
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. Our bodies are capable of so much more than we often give them credit for.
A strong and stable body, especially the core, can help with hand issues and all kinds of other issues while cycling. Weak core engagement often puts too much weight through the hands, while a strong core can help you stay light in front. I’ve heard to imagine playing the piano with your hands as you ride, or try lifting your hands off the bars without changing your body position. If you can’t do that, work on core strength and/or bike fit.
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.
Hand numbness, weakness, and pain can be a major bummer while cycling. I’ve been there! But don’t be discouraged, because it’s not permanent and there are many ways to fix it.
Start by being mindful of your grip, posture, and bike fit. Cushion your contact points by wearing gloves and using high quality bar tape or grips, and make sure your tire pressure isn’t too high. If that’s not enough a different handlebar can often help: consider more flare, rise, or backsweep, or even carbon fiber. Some riders swear by a suspension stem! For stubborn cases consider a carbon or suspension fork.
With the right combination of all these factors almost everyone should be able to manage hand issues while cycling. Time to start experimenting! I wish you many happy miles free from pain, numbness, and the struggles of trying to open an energy bar without opposable thumbs.
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