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Taking the Numbness Out of a Long Ride

Special bike seats may take away the tingle, study finds

FRIDAY, May 10, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- They say you never forget how to ride a bicycle, but after a long ride many people wish they could.

Both men and women frequently suffer from numbness down below, a temporary condition that might contribute to impotence. However, sports medicine doctors say they've proven that specially designed bike seats can take away the tingle, particularly for men.

The seats could help bikers with a common problem that neither they nor researchers discuss very often, says Dr. Mark Bracker, director of sports medicine at the University of California at San Diego and co-author of a new study on the subject.

"It's something that people don't talk about very much. They just kind of put up with it," he says.

No one knows how many bicyclists suffer from the condition that's officially known as perineal numbness.

Numbness in the lower genital area occurs when the pressure of a bicycle seat interferes with nerves in that region of the body. In layman's terms, the area "falls asleep."

"It's the same thing as if you drape your arm over a chair too long and it gets numb, or your hand went to sleep if you slept funny at night," Bracker says.

For most people, the symptoms quickly go away once they get off the bike.

"But there's a lot of people who cycle a lot, and it raises a question: If you're having numbness and you're irritating the nerve, are you producing any long-term effects?" Bracker asks.

Some doctors, relying on some cases of anecdotal evidence, suspect the numbness may contribute to impotence.

It's not the first time someone has made the connection between an uncomfortable seat and erectile dysfunction.

Hippocrates himself made a link between the breeding troubles of the ancient tribe known as the Scythians and their many hours spent on horses, says study co-author Dr. Kenneth S. Taylor, co-director of sports medicine at the university.

Bracker and Taylor decided to study a special bicycle seat they had developed, which they have called the Serfas RX series. Like others of its type, the seat aims to reduce pressure on the lower genital area through an cutout in the middle of the seat.

The research, which appears in the May issue of The Physician and Sportsmedicine, is apparently the first of its kind to scientifically study the effect of bike seats on perineal numbness, the co-authors say.

The researchers asked questions of 15 experienced male cyclists after they spent separate one-hour sessions on a standard bike seat and the specially designed seat. Twelve of the bicyclists reported numbness after using the standard seat, but only two did after using the special seat.

The doctors got similar results by using a device that measures numbness by testing what a person can feel.

Taylor says more research needs to be done to determine how often women suffer from numbness, and how extensive the theoretical impotency problem is.

"We need to be aware that there are some hazards that are unique to cycling," he says. "We need to work toward finding a solution."

What To Do

Bicycling magazine offers these tips on how men can avoid numbness on the road.

Learn about the benefits of biking from the League of American Bicyclists.

SOURCES: Mark Bracker, M.D., director, sports medicine, and clinical professor, family and preventative medicine, University of California at San Diego; Kenneth S. Taylor, M.D., co-director, sports medicine, and clinical instructor, department of family and preventative medicine, University of California at San Diego; May 2002 The Physician and Sportsmedicine.
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