Cycling is a great way to stay healthy and very good for cardiovascular health Not only that, it can be a most enjoyable sport, as you can cycle any where around the world.
Indeed, it is a favourite, international sport with a great following, like the Tour de France.
As with any sport, there are, of course, dangers and health consequences from engaging in cycling. Here, most people would immediately think about head injuries, falls and being hit by a vehicle being the obvious ones.
However, there is a rare triad of health problems that is rarely discussed, much less known about: erectile dysfunction (or impotence), pain in the pelvic region, and penile numbness.
This is how the trio are linked. The prudendal arteries that supply blood to the penis are located beneath the pubic bone. Sitting for lengthy periods of time on a narrow, hard surface – the bicycle saddle – compresses these blood vessels, thereby hampering smooth blood flow, and in the process, reducing oxygen supply to the nerves and injuring them.
The first symptom of nerve injury is sporadic tingling, which in itself is not particularly bothersome. In the early stages, this injury is usually always reversible. However, this symptom is also usually always ignored.
In some men, continued pressure on the arteries lead to more severe nerve damage. The damage can be erectile dysfunction (or impotence), numbness, pain in the pelvic and penile region. Once the damage reaches this point, it is difficult to reverse the nerve damage.
The Journal of Andrology (2002): 91% of bicycle police officers who spent an average of 5 hours per day on a bicycle reported experiencing intermittent numbness in the groin/penile area. The same men also experienced fewer night-time erections (an additional symptom of nerve damage) compared to non-cyclists. Men who spent more time on the bicycle saddle were those at greater risk.
What is the percentage of men who actually progress to erectile dysfunction as a result of bicycle riding? The results of other experiments were conflicting: The Journal of Urology (2004) conducted an internet survey of 688 cyclists and reported a 17% incidence of erectile dysfunction. This figure, however, is not higher than that of the general population. Other studies report that 3 hours or more of bicycle riding per week constitutes risk factor to men, predisposing them to erectile dysfunction.
Is there anything that can be done to prevent erectile dysfunction resulting from prolonged time spent on a bicycle saddle? Ergonomic changes can reduce the pressure point beneath the pubic bone, reducing blood vessel compression. These include:
- A full professional assessment of the bicycle and its saddle fit, making sure that the pressure points be on the sit bones ischial tuberosities) and NOT on the pubic bone.
- Ensuring that the bicycle saddle is parallel to the ground. OR, even better, is to tilt the seat slightly downwards, and never upwards.
- Use proper professional padded cycling shorts.
- Decrease or limit time spent crouching over the racing bars. The more the position is forward flexed, the more is the compression of the blood vessels
- Use a saddle that is wider and with more padding.
- Use a blunt, or noseless, saddle. This type of saddle decreases significantly the point of contact pressure on the prudendal arteries. An experiment reported using a noseless saddle diminished perineal tingling from 78% down to 18%
Many men will cycle for years and experience no erectile dysfunction. However, the old adage still holds: one ounce of prevention is always better than a pound of cure. Men who cycle frequently should be aware of pudental artery compression leading to erectile dysfunction, and take due preventive measures.
They should be aware of the symptoms and NOT ignore them: numbness or tingling in their penis and / or perineum, even if this is not persistent. They should be aware that this is their body’s warning sign of nerve damage, and that in some men could very quickly progress to erectile dysfunction and other more serious issues.
Should tingling persist after a cycling session, it is advisable to pay a visit to your urologist to check. For those men who continue cycling regularly, using ergonomic solutions mentioned above may help to allay erectile dysfunction, and other more serious, and sometimes, irreversible problems.