Scientists demonstrate that low handlebars contribute to a decrease in women’s genital sensation.
It’s that time of year again: bike enthusiasts everywhere are itching to roll up their right pant leg and get their tires pumped. As a person who gets around by public transportation, that first ride of the season is always a liberating experience, but, every year, I also brace myself for subsequent soreness, and I am not just talking about leg muscles.
Despite cycling’s many health benefits, it is known to cause erectile dysfunction in men. Moreover, a study recently published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine found that handlebar position is putting women’s genital sensation at risk, where low handlebars increase perineum saddle pressure and decrease anterior vaginal and left labial genital sensation.
Studies on the aerodynamics of cycling have accessed that the “proper” position for handlebars should be 1 to 2 inches lower than the saddle, causing professional and recreational cyclists alike to adopt this positioning. Unfortunately, this practice is also at the source of an ongoing trade-off between a more aerodynamic bicycle position and a more ergonomic one.
For example, previous studies identified a number of common cycling injuries, including neck and back pain, chafing, and genital numbness. In fact, 50 to 91% of men and women cyclists report experiencing genital numbness. The relationship between bicycle setup and genital sensation in women cyclists, however, has, until now, not been investigated.
In order to study this relationship, scientists, led by Sarah N. Partin of the Texas A&M Health Science Center, recruited 41 female cyclists who rode an average of at least 10 miles per week, and who positioned their handlebars lower than or level with the saddle.
First, the scientists recorded the way in which each cyclist set up their bicycles. Then, the riders mounted their own bicycles onto a cycling trainer, allowing the researchers to measure saddle pressure and power output. Finally, the Medoc Vibratory Sensory Analyzer 3000, not your average vibrator, was used to measure sensation at eight genital regions: the clitoris, the left and right perineum, the anterior and posterior vagina, the left and right labia, and the urethra.
The scientists found that low handlebars caused an average increase of 3.47 kPA in mean perineum saddle pressure compared to women who positioned their handlebars at the same height as the saddle. In women, the perineum is the region between the legs that stretches between the vagina and the anus. Low handlebars increase saddle pressure by increasing the pelvic tilt and the trunk angle at which cyclists ride.
This increase in perineum saddle pressure resulted in a significant loss of genital sensation in the anterior vagina and in the left labia, where the threshold at which women were able to sense genital stimulation increased by 34% and 29% respectively in women with lower handlebars.
The researchers were unable to explain why the reduction in genital sensation was one-sided in the labia. It is possible that riders have dominant side where they put more pressure, but this hypothesis necessitates further investigation.
If you are a hardcore cyclist who enjoys biking on a regular basis, you might want to consider raising your handlebars a bit or limiting your use of drop handlebars. You won’t tear down a hill as fast, but you might have more fun in the sack.
*This article, with some modifications, appeared in the 14 March 2012 issue of The Ontarion, the University of Guelph’s independent student newspaper.
Partin, S., Connell, K., Schrader, S., LaCombe, J., Lowe, B., Sweeney, A., Reutman, S., Wang, A., Toennis, C., Melman, A., Mikhail, M., & Guess, M. (2012). The Bar Sinister: Does Handlebar Level Damage the Pelvic Floor in Female Cyclists? The Journal of Sexual Medicine DOI: 10.1111/j.1743-6109.2012.02680.x