After 12 years riding the same bike seat, on average of 20 kms a day, George began to notice gradual erectile dysfunction issues in the past five years. “My first thought was that it was related to cycling.” He didn’t experience numbness, as a precursor, but instead, it just wasn’t working in the bedroom.
His story is common. In fact, hardly a day goes by that Duke’s Cycle in Toronto doesn’t have a customer come in asking for a new seat. “Numbness is a common problem, but they don’t often go into more detail than that,” says Lisa Stockus, a sales representative.
In 1997 a study from the Massachusetts Male Aging study, which looked at over 1,700 recreational riders between the ages of 40 and 70, blamed cycling for erectile dysfunction. One of the authors, Dr. Irwin Goldstein, proclaimed: “there are only two kinds of male cyclists – those who are impotent and those who will be impotent.”
Since that study, the following research is saying that instead of ditching the bike, find a new saddle instead. There is hope for riders who want to have healthy and active sex lives.
What is happening down there?
Your penis doesn’t have to be directly on the saddle to feel the effects of numbness. In fact, the soft tissue area between the anus and the penis, the perineum, is loaded with blood vessels and nerves. The erectile tissue extends from the tip of the penis back towards the anus. If riders are resting their body weight on this area, and not your sit bones located in your glutes, then the blood flow is not only restricted, the vessels can collapse, or worse, build up scar tissue that can block blood flow needed for an erection.
The sit bones, or ischial tuberosities, have no organs, and the nerves and arteries are surrounded by the fat and muscle of your bum, therefore we can sit for hours without pain.
But, the research is revealing that yes, cycling will cause numbness, and yes this can lead to erectile dysfunction. The MMAS study revealed that spending three hours or more a week on the saddle carries a risk ratio of 1.72 (anything over 1.5 is defined as a health risk) of long term arterial damage.
And while the research since the studies in the early 2000s haven’t produced any new findings, more research has been done on saddles and ways to mitigate the numbness and pressure on the perineum.
Not everyone who rides will experience numbness or ED. But as the creator of Spongy, a dual seat saddle that removes the pressure from the perineum, Jeff Dixon says, “It’s like a smoker—you might not get cancer, but it’s a risk. With cycling, it’s the same thing, unless you remove the risk: the traditional saddle.”
Saddles that are designed to spread the pressure to the buttocks without a hard, narrow nose have been shown to alleviate the problem. After complaints and the health concerns of bicycling police officers who spend most of the day on a bike saddle, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conducted a study that looked at 91 police riders before using an alternative nose-less saddle.
“There were reports of genital numbness, but the sensitivity was removed and they found the erectile dysfunction was diminished,” says Steven Schrader, a reproductive health expert, and one of the study’s leading authors.
“We determined that about 20 to 25% of their body weight was being put on the nose of the saddle. With the nose-less saddle you remove that weight on the soft tissue.” After the study, only three officers returned to the regular saddles.
This was the thinking behind one of the most unconventional, but popular bike seats available. The Spongy Wonder (made in New Brunswick) uses two platforms – one for each sit bone, without a nose.
Within the athletic cycling community, one brand of saddle stands out. The Power series of saddles from Specialized that shift body weight onto the sit bones avoiding putting pressure on the perineum.
As far as gel seats or cut outs, Schrader says to avoid both. Both alternatives only transfer the weight and put more pressure on the perineum.
The type of biking makes a difference
A 2004 study of 33 bikers revealed that a traditional sport race bike saddles, put twice the pressure on your perineum than other styles of bike saddles.
“Road cycling and cycle touring are big culprits, but it’s less about body position and more about the fact that it is a long time on the bike and in a position that is static and you don’t move around on the saddle,” says Andrew McGregor, the sports marketing sales rep for Specialized Bicycle Components.
“Triathletes are poster childs for this as they are in a fixed position while roadies (road cyclists) move around a bit; mountain bike (is the best scenario) because it is a dynamic sport where you’re up and down out of the saddle often.”
Measure your sit bones
Your weight has no bearing on the width of your sit bones, meaning, you can be heavier and have a smaller distance between your sit bones. Before finding a perfect fitting bike saddle, experts suggest getting a fitting and that begins with this all-important measurement.
A profile photo of a rider with a saddle too small for his sit bones reveals a curved spine and his body weight shifted forward. With a correctly fitting saddle, his back straightens and his weight shifts back onto his sit bones.
“If the saddle isn’t the right width, the body will always adapt to find a way – you might shift body by lifting one leg and shifting your bodyweight to adapt. It might cause back pain or travel up your arm. But this is all fixed with the right bike saddle,” says McGregor.
And when all else fails, McGregor says just lift your bum for some relief. “As soon as you get up problem resolved—even on a bad saddle.”
Written by Dr. Ron Mayer, FullMast’s Chief Medical Officer