cycling utah October 1998
No one expects their saddle to rival the lazy boy lounger at home for comfort. Most accept the occasional bruising, chafing, and saddle sore as an unpleasant but tolerable part of the sport.
Recently, the bicycle seat has been implicated in more significant problems, namely impotence. Irwin Goldstein, a urologist, was quoted by Bicycling magazine as stating, "Men should never ride bicycles. Riding should be banned and outlawed. It is the most irrational form of exercise I could ever bring to discussion."
Dr. Goldstein's published studies on the subject of impotence and bicycling pertain to traumatic injuries to the groin from a straddle fall onto the bicycle stem or top tube. He estimates that approximately 100,000 men in the U.S. are impotent because of this type of accident. While every cyclist should be aware of this risk, the conclusion that compression of the groin area by a bicycle seat poses similar risks to men is premature.
So, can sitting on a bicycle seat cause impotence? In extreme cases, the answer appears to be yes. Despite a paucity of data on the subject, there are a few reports in the medical journals of individuals with impotence related to their saddles. One study reported complaints of impotence in 13% of the surveyed participants in a 540km bicycle race. The vast majority recovered in less than one week, and all recovered completely by 8 months. Numbness of the scrotum and/or penis prior to impotence was noted by almost everyone.
Exactly how does a saddle cause genital numbness and impotence? If you squat to sit on a curb, the bones you feel supporting your weight are your ischial bones. The arteries, veins, and nerves which are involved with arousal and erection exit between and just in front of these bones. When you sit on your bicycle seat, you should feel your weight being supported by your ischial bones.
If too much weight is centered between or in front of these bones, the vessels and nerves which are located there can become compressed. Pressure on these nerves causes numbness or a tingling sensation which is typically the first sign that weight is not being distributed correctly on the saddle. Further pressure may damage these structures inhibiting proper erectile function.
What is the risk of impotency with cycling? No one knows. Not many studies on the subject exist. Preliminary data indicates that it is not common. All of the reported cases of cycling related impotency that I was able to identify resolved spontaneously. Current medical opinion is that the health benefits of cycling dramatically overshadow any potential risk. In fact, aerobic exercise like cycling minimizes one's risk of hypertension, high cholesterol, obesity, and diabetes which are common causes of impotency.
How do I minimize my risks? Use some common sense and watch for warning signs. Numbness and impotence should not be tolerated. If you notice numbness in the genital area, make some changes.
Your saddle should be horizontal to slightly nose down. Lowering the saddle and/or raising the stem can alleviate pressure on the perineum, the area between the sit bones.
Stand often to allow a break from saddle pressure. Use your legs as shock absorbers particularly when riding over rough terrain or bumps, railroad tracks for example.
Sliding or rotating forward on the seat increases the pressure on the perineum; try to minimize these motions which occur most commonly in more aerodynamic positions. Check your reach to the handlebars. If it is too long, there is a tendency to slide forward on the saddle.
Finally, try a different saddle. The shape of the saddle is much more important then the amount of padding. There is no perfect saddle. Everyone's pelvis has a unique shape and size; consequently, different saddles will appeal to different people. Experiment and find the saddle that is right for you.