Back in 2013, in The Bicycling Wave Of The Future, I wrote about the potential dangers of spending a great deal of time on contemporary, upright bicycle seats. Such exposure can cause nerve damage to the penis, and to the genitalia of women as well. I also suggested the best way to avoid such damage, while continuing to ride, was to ride recumbents, which have far more comfortable seats. In those days, I was riding a two-wheeled recumbent, but in 2016, Mrs. Manor and I switched to trikes, which comprise some 70% of the recumbent market. I’ve been more than pleased with that choice.
I’ve seen, of late, two contradictory reports on bike seats, the first from The Chicago Tribune:
The groin pain and numbness some serious bicyclists experience isn’t harmful to their sexual or urinary health, two new studies suggest.
‘As cycling gains in popularity, as both a hobby and a professional sport, it is important for the public to know that it has no credible link to urologic disease or sexual dysfunction,’ said Dr. Kevin McVary, a spokesman for the American Urological Association.
‘Men and women can benefit from the cardiovascular exercise of cycling without worrying about negative side effects to their urinary tract or sexual performance,’ McVary said in an association news release. He is chair of urology at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.
Prolonged pressure to the perineum, or groin area, can be painful and cause loss of feeling in the area. Previous studies have suggested this groin pain could lead to erectile dysfunction in men and also take a toll on women’s sexual health, the researchers said.
“Researchers” looked into this, but their methodology is not particularly reassuring. Apparently they surveyed several thousand men and women, not all of whom actually rode bicycles(?!).
The study found that sexual dysfunction and urinary symptoms were no worse for cyclists than runners or swimmers. But, bikers were more likely to have perineal numbness — regardless of the type of bike seat they used. [skip]
Meanwhile, a separate study involving nearly 2,700 female athletes found that cycling has no notable effect on women’s sexual or urinary health.
Another warning sign is these results were not obtained over time. They consisted only of a one-time questionnaire. When one is relatively young, they may well suffer considerable numbness, even temporary dysfunction, which may resolve without treatment. When I rode uprights, I certainly experienced those symptoms. However, there is no way to tell what, if any, long-term damage might be done by years of riding, and no way to determine whether such damage was caused by or directly related to riding as opposed to a number of age-related afflictions.
Both studies indicated the men and women had “higher scores in sexual function,” but this is particularly specious. Elite athletes might well be more sexually active and enjoy it more, but such benefit would almost certainly accrue from the exercise, and have no relation whatever to bicycle saddles. In addition, one wonders how many athletes, particularly elite athletes, are anxious to admit their sexual performance is substandard, such admission being rather a blow to the ego, tending to call into question why they spend so much time working out. This is less then encouraging:
However, the study showed the women who rode bikes were at greater risk for urinary tract infections. Those who rode more than three times a week for more than two years were also more likely to develop perineal numbness and sores on their rear end.
Well, yeah. Men’s Heath.com is a bit less certain cycling is harmless:
Erectile dysfunction: it’s every man’s worst fear. Unfortunately, it’s also pretty common: according to one estimate, nearly 18 million American men struggle with erectile dysfunction in some form. There are many factors that contribute to ED, notably poor diet, lack of sleep, and stress. There’s also one potential cause that we don’t often talk about: cycling.
Before you start freaking out, it’s important to note that if you, say, go biking a few times a week, this probably won’t apply to you. But if you’re a hardcore cyclist, over time sitting on a solid seat can slowly cause damage to the pudendal nerve, the largest grouping of pelvic nerves, which wraps around most of the lower bowel, the anus, perineum and the lower genitals. This can manifest itself in pudendal nerve entrapment. While rare, this condition can result in chronic pain, numbness, and yup, you guessed it, sexual dysfunction.
‘Pudendal nerve damage can result in loss of sensation in areas of the groin and perineum,’ says Azad John-Salimi M.D., a family medicine doctor in Portland, Oregon. ‘Serious cyclists can injure the anatomy in that area and although the pudendal nerves are deep inside the body, continuous seat pressure can risk nerve compression and maybe nerve injury.
There is currently no way to know whether one will suffer such injury, whether it is temporary or permanent, or whether its effects are more individual than common. My experience would indicate it is temporary, however I can’t compare my experience with others, as I rode uprights in the days when saddles designed to limit such problems were in their infancy. One might presume those riding more narrow, conventional saddles would have greater exposure to damage, but again, that can’t be assumed. I was also never an elite cyclist, riding 100 or more miles a week. I eventually ended up with a prostate resection as a fix for benign prostate enlargement, but that’s a common male affliction accompanying aging, so there is no way to tell whether riding hard, narrow saddles contributed to the problem.
As to sexual dysfunction, suffice it to say my sexual prowess is celebrated far and wide, hither and yon, in song and legend…OK, you got me. The days of titanium erections that just wouldn’t quit—often at the most embarrassing times—are long gone, but again, that’s a common effect of getting older, so who knows what, if any, effect the occasional bout of numbness and dysfunction in my younger years wrought?
The various saddles depicted in this article are all attempts to address the issue, usually while making the saddle as light as possible, low weight being a fetish for more serious cyclists. The Terry saddle (women’s model) is somewhat representative of the breed, and features a cutout for the sensitive parts. But again, such matters are very much individual, and depend not only on the saddle, but the geometry of the bike, the angle of the saddle, riding style, road surfaces, and a variety of other factors.
Some manufacturers, like Hobson, have eliminated the narrow front portion of the saddle entirely, however, such saddles have never captured a significant portion of the market. Among more serious cyclists, endurance of pain and fatigue are something of a badge of honor. One can’t be an elite cyclist without proving that ability over and over again, and such cyclists are loath to admit pain or dysfunction.
On sure way to more or less eliminate the problem is to ride a recumbent, two wheeled or trike configuration. Unfortunately, this is often not an option for the hard-core cyclist. Even the lightest recumbents are substantially heavier than the lightest upright bikes. They have substantially more frame material, a bit more than twice the length of chain, and other factors that increase weight. While some recumbents are indeed fast, and even some trikes, most hard-core cyclists won’t give up the cachet of the elite cyclist, which revolved in part around having the lightest, highest tech upright possible.
For those that make the switch, however, the benefits are substantial. The Rans seat, depicted above on the Rocket model, is an industry standard, and Rans sells it to other manufacturers. I can testify from experience it is very comfortable. One can take rides that would have beaten one senseless on an upright, with no crotch, back or neck pain.
This seat, on the current Sportster model—a light and fast trike–is standard on most of Terra Trike’s line. It too is very comfortable, easily cleaned, and fully adjustable. Such seats allow one to take long, vigorous rides, and experience only the exertion of the muscles, not chronic back, crotch, neck, hand and arm pain.
The bottom line is probably something with which all serious cyclists are familiar: trial and error. Try different seats, bars, gloves, clothing and other accessories until something endurable is found. Sometimes that requires a radical change, as I experienced when an occupational neck injury made it impossible for me to continue to ride upright bikes. Recumbents present no such problems.
Do contemporary bike seats cause lasting damage? Maybe, but there are alternatives.