How to avoid aches and pains when riding

Published: 27 May 2001

Wrists

If you ride a bike for long enough you can fall foul of an affliction known as carpal tunnel syndrome. The ‘carpal tunnel’ is a bracelet of bones and ligament at the base of your hand and anyone who performs a repetitive task enough times – clutch, brakes, throttle, two-finger salute - with the wrong posture will irritate these tendons and cause swelling and scar tissue. The condition gets worse when combined with cold and vibration, so time spent in the saddle puts you in the high-risk category.

To avoid it you need to look at your riding position says Dr Yew Meng, who has been riding for six years: " Adjust the height of your handlebars, or your rider height, so that your forearm, wrist and brake lever are in a straight line. " It’s important that your wrists are in a neutral position, not flexed up or down.

Back

The position your back gets into when you’re on a bike is somewhere between unnatural and impossible. One of the worst postural habits you can have is to consistently lean forward, twisting occasionally: exactly what you do on the road. " You need to avoid any exaggerated curve in the lower back, a posture that cramps muscles, nerves and disks. This is hard to do on a sports bike, " says Dr Yew Meng. When you ride any bike the muscles that run along the lower spine will get strained and pulled out of shape, most of the time they will hold out, but occasionally they will give up. This is when they will go into spasm.

Rest or a swift visit to the oesteopath is the only answer. When you get home, lie on your back with a pillow under your knees, " says Dr Colin Frasier. " This position relaxes key back muscles and puts the least strain on your spine. " It also helps to do back strengthening exercises.

Neck and shoulders

" The head is a very heavy organ and if you’ve got a helmet on top of that your neck has a lot to support, " says Dr Weng. About four kgs, in fact. On a bike, the neck tends to get extended at an unnatural angle and its nerves get squeezed and pinched.. The jerks and jolts of acceleration and braking don’t help either. To compound the problem they are connected through the spinal chord to the shoulders which is why neck problems will often " refer " the pain to the shoulder area.

The key here is to get back in balance, occasionally. It’s essential that you allow your body some posture changes and a chance to relax for a few minutes to ease the tension. That means a few more pit stops on long journeys.

Lungs

Research published last year in medical journal, The Lancet estimates that 20, 000 deaths per year are linked to traffic fumes. " This isn’t helped by the fact that motorcycle helmets need to have air inlets where your mouth is so all the harmful dust is being channelled directly through to your mouth and nose, " says Dr Yew Meng. This means that chronic bronchitis and asthma will be exacerbated when you’re on your bike - especially in urban areas. The research also estimated that traffic fumes were responsible for more than 25,000 new cases of chronic bronchitis and more than 500,000 asthma attacks.

" I would always recommend wearing a pollution mask inside your helmet, " says Meng, " especially for journeys in congested traffic. " Breathing through you nose instead of your mouth will also help filter out some of the harmful airborne particles.

Fingers

Next time you’re held up by road works and you ride past the fella with the jack hammer, don’t curse him, he’s only trying to flatten the road so that you don’t end up with the same condition that will soon force him into early retirement. That condition is Raynaud’s Syndrome, otherwise known as " white finger " , which refers to a restriction in the blood supply to your extremities - particularly your fingers. It comes from constant vibration and turns the fingers - usually index and middle - white, leaving them numb and with reduced dexterity and grip strength. Regardless of how good the shocks on your bike, you are going to experience a lot of vibration through the handlebars and this could eventually damage the nerves and the blood vessels in your hands and fingers. The condition is usually not severe and attacks only cause minor discomfort, but it can lead to skin ulcers and is progressive if left unchecked. It will become irreversible if you don’t cut down the vibration from your handlebars with a dampening material, like Sorbothane, or buy gloves that have a viscoelastic polymer inside.

Ears

" Most motorcyclists will have some degree of hearing loss, whether they know it or not, " says Dr Yew Meng. Probably something to do with the fact that the sound of heavy traffic can rise above the 85 decibel limit that experts consider safe. Above this limit, noise overstimulates the delicate cells in your inner ears that carry sound to your auditory nerves. The cells will recover if their exposure to the noise is brief, otherwise they will be destroyed. " The desire to have louder race cams and pipes doesn’t help, " adds Meng.

" Helmets don’t provide adequate protection for the ears so I would always advise using ear plugs. "

Stomach

Getting on a bike after a heavy meal can be like putting your stomach on a spin cycle. Your riding position squeezes it out of shape and the movement sends it bouncing around like a beach ball. Your stomach is a sack, wrapped in muscle and when you eat, hydrochloric acid is produced to mix with the food and make it digestible. A mucous layer usually stops the acid getting to other areas of your body and a flap seals the top of the stomach to stop the acid splashing out. Tight leathers can increase your misery as they can squeeze the acids up and out. Keep some antacids in your saddlebag.

Balls

Tight trousers and testicles don’t mix. Add a sports bike seat and you shouldn’t be too surprised if you’re getting gyp from your Jacob’s. " Your testes hang below your body for a reason, " says consultant urologist Maria Parsons. " , but the problem is that on a bike the riding position often means they are often pushed into the body. ‘ Not good for comfort – or your chances of fatherhood. ‘The testicles need to remain about four degrees cooler than body temperature to produce sperm efficiently. " Other than riding around naked, you have to compensate in other areas, particularly your diet. Certain vitamins (C and E) are thought to enhance the health of your sperm. Mineral zinc is also recommended because it’s beneficial for the prostate, where the seminal fluid is produced.

Bum

Piles are one result of giving your rear end a hard time in the saddle. These occur when the supportive tissue that surrounds your anus loses elasticity, " says consultant urologist Maria Parsons. " This allows the blood-filled cushions that support your anal lining to sag. " Another unsavoury effect of riding around in hot leather is " pruritus ani " . This is the medical term for an inflamed anus, which is supposed to be kept dry but will inevitably become moist when you’re sat on it for a while. The friction you will get from your bike saddle can inflame the skin around the anus and can lead to itching and a rash.

For piles a haemorrhoid cream, like Anusol, is the only answer which will lubricate the anal canal and shrink the piles. To avoid pruitus ani, try to keep the area as dry as possible – a squirt of talcum powder can help

Knees

Our most vulnerable joint doesn’t get an easy ride on a bike. Racers will twist their knee to an abnormal angle in order to get the racing line on corners and off-roaders will know what a battering their knees take.. " Bikers are particularly vulnerable to cartilage tears, " says Richard Battle, a motorcycle paramedic for the London ambulance service. " He says that you will know if you’ve pushed your knee too far because you’ll experience a sharp pain at the joint line when you move, after which the only option is surgery.

Joints

The older you get the more susceptible you are to tendinitis causes causing joints to swell and become painful. It occurs in the major joints where the tendon attaches to the bone and by the time you hit thirty those tendons will already have begun to weaken. So after a particularly long ride it can strike your shoulder, elbow, knee, or heel.. "

" There are no real preventative measures, ‘ says orhtapedic surgeon Dr Colin Frasier. ‘you just have to accept that it will hit occasionally and rest accordingly. It should calm down after a day or so. Once it stops hurting you can get back on your bike. "

Legs

Varicose veins are caused when the vein walls in your lower body begin to slacken. These veins are lined with valves that help blood return to the heart. When the wall of the vein becomes slack, the vessel dilates and the valves don’t close entirely so that the blood flows backward and pools in the veins. Heat from the bike can also cause the veins to open up, bringing more blood to the legs and keeping it there. To avoid ending up with legs like your gran, just get your legs moving after you get off the bike. Leg muscle contractions help return blood to the heart against the pull of gravity.

Dehydration

If you’re wearing leathers on a tarmac-melting day then you can guarantee your body is going to dehydrate. It is common to have sweat losses of up to 2-3 litres per hour on very hot days (just under a gallon per hour). " If you lose just two percent of your body weight in water, through sweating, you’ll lose 20 percent of your body’s performance, " says Dr Yew Meng. At four percent, tiredness and nausea will kick in and that isn’t good when you’re handling 170 bhp of motorcycle. You are also at greater risk from muscle cramps. . When you’re dehydrated you will sweat out your body’s store of electrolytes along with the water and these electrolytes are responsible for carrying electrical charges to the nerves that signal muscles to contract and relax. A good way to tell if you are keeping up with fluid losses is to check your urine is clear. If it is not, keep drinking. "Pee white" is the saying in the army. Take care, some time out to neck a drink with " isotonic " on the label. This means that the drink replaces the fluid and minerals that are sweated out at the same rate that you lose them.

Road Stress

Adrenaline is the reason most of us get on a bike in the first place, but too much is not good for you because it’s a stress hormone and readies your bodiy for impending danger. Your coronary arteries narrow, cutting down the flow of blood to the heart, increasing your pulse and blood pressure. So, even though your body is going into overdrive you’re just sat still in the saddle doing nothing about it

Another stress hormone, called catecholamine, kicks in when you under pressure from weyward car drivers, speed cameras and other idiot road users. It makes your blood thicker and more prone to clotting, thus increasing the risk of heart attack. Chronic stress will also dampen your immune response leaving you open to attacks from viruses and allergens in pollution. So try not to take that ticket too personally

Helmet Hair

We’ve all been there. The lid comes off and your hair looks like it’s been sat on by a sumo wearing lard underpants. Helmet Hair isn’t the only thing you should be wary of. If the scalp becomes hot and perspires in the helmet it can lead to blocked hair follicles as dead skin cells, oil, dirt and hair cosmetics are compacted. Once all this stuff gets trapped in the follicles it gives the bacteria in the sweat something to survive on and this will lead to the hair beginning to smell or, at worst, causing limited patches of non-growth. " The trick here is to shampoo every day so that you get rid of the waste materials in your hair, like dried sweat and shedded skin, " says consultant trichologist Glenn Lyons, at the Philip Kingsley hair clinic in London.

Stretch If getting on the bike is your first energetic activity of the day have a stretch beforehand. And when you get off to help stop muscles stiffening up

Relax: You need to keep blood circulating through strained muscle fibres so take a pit-stop every two hours - at least - to allow them to return to their normal elasticity without stiffness setting in.

Drink: Pre-empt the dehydration you will experience on a long journey by pre-hydrating with water. Drink up to half-a-litre, a few hours before twisting the throttle, to fill up your body’s water tank.

Breathe: Stay away from synthetic fibres and stick to lightweight natural fibres; cotton in summer and wool in winter. Synthetics don’t allow the body to breathe (especially inside leathers) and even a small percentage in your clothes can send the sweat glands into overtime.