If riding your bike makes you go numb down there, try these simple tips to avoid bigger issues — like erectile dysfunction. (Photo: Getty Images/PeopleImages.com)
Despite what Internet videos may lead you to believe, the product that causes the most injuries to the genitalia are not maliciously aimed footballs — they’re bicycles. In the U.S., bike-riding causes approximately 4,000 genital injuries each year, research shows.
As you might assume, the connection between bike-riding and ED has to do with the nose of the saddle pressing on one’s private parts. Ideally, a rider’s weight should be mostly supported by the wide part of the saddle, resting on the sit bones (ischiatic tuberosities). But even with a perfect bike fit, there will be some pressure on the more sensitive structures, which experts say may lead to ED over time.
“When the weight of a cyclist’s body is directed toward the front part of the perineum, it can be transmitted to the blood vessels and nerves that run in that area and go to the penis,” says the Urology review’s coauthor, Frank Van der Aa, MD, PhD, a urologist practicing at UZ Leuven hospital in Belgium.
This pressure can compress the blood vessels that lead to the penis, diminishing bloodflow, Van der Aa tells Yahoo Health. The longer the blood vessels are compressed, the greater the damage. In addition, the spongy erectile tissue becomes scarred and loses elasticity, which can lead to ED.
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Nerve damage may also be involved, says Gregory Mitchell, MD, a urology resident at Tulane University School of Medicine and the coauthor of a 2014 review on cycling-related sexual dysfunction. Pressure on the perineum can compress the main artery (the pudendal artery) and nerve (the pudendal nerve) that supply blood and sensation to the genitalia, Mitchell tells Yahoo Health. “You need a good blood supply to the penis to achieve erection, and entrapment of the pudendal artery between a bicycle seat and the pubic bone can interrupt that vital blood flow,” he says. “Similarly, compression of the pudendal nerve can lead to genital numbness.”
So, what’s a man to do? While research doesn’t clearly link certain bike features with erection issues, there are some steps you can take to reduce pressure on key nerves and blood vessels while riding. Here’s what to consider:
- The saddle should be wide enough to support your sit bones. The only way to know for sure is to try the saddle and notice where your weight falls as you ride, Van der Aa says. Most bike shops will allow you to put a saddle on your bike and try it out while you’re visiting the store, Mitchell adds.
- Noseless saddles put less pressure on the perineum, studies show. But what’s most important is that the seat feels comfortable to you. “There is a great deal of anatomical variation from person to person, and a saddle that is comfortable for one person may be intolerable for another,” Mitchell says.
- If your private parts go numb when you ride, your saddle most likely doesn’t fit properly. While numbness doesn’t necessarily lead to ED, studies suggest that most men with cycling-related ED do experience genital numbness first. So reconsider your saddle choice if you experience this problem, Van der Aa says.
- Seek out a professional bike-fitting from a reputable bike shop, Mitchell recommends. You may need to change the position or angle of the saddle, or the setup of the handlebars, saddle, and pedals to place your body in the proper position as you ride.
Observational studies, anecdotal evidence, and media reports have all suggested that bicycling can lead to ED. But according to the existing body of research, cyclists don’t have a higher rate of ED than the general population, Van der Aa’s review points out.
One study found that men who bike more than three hours per week have a higher rate of ED compared with guys who bike fewer than three hours weekly — but non-cyclists had the highest likelihood of erection issues. “We know from large studies that ED coincides strongly with other diseases of the cardiovascular system,” Van der Aa says. By improving cardiovascular health, moderate cycling can actually help prevent ED, he explains.
So don’t give up cycling just because of the possibility of cycling-related erection problems. “I believe that the risk of ED from a sedentary lifestyle is much greater than any risk incurred by cycling,” Mitchell says, “with the caveat being that the bicycle and saddle should be well-fit to the cyclist and the type of riding they will be doing.”