Every Saturday the CSPH highlights news or recent research in the field of human sexuality. This week we’re discussing a study published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine investigating the relationships between women bicycles’ seat design and genital nerve function in female, competitive cyclists.
Past research has shown that an extended amount of time spent in a bike seat, or saddle, can affect a person’s sexual health, but a majority of what we know relates to male riders. Male cyclists can suffer occasional genital numbness, erectile dysfunction, and even impotence when riding for long periods of time on a consistent basis. Researchers Marsha K. Guess, Sarah N. Partin, Steven Schrader, Brian Lowe, Julie LaCombe, Susan Reutman, Andrea Wang, Christine Toennis, Arnold Melman, Madgy Mikhail, and Kathleen A. Connell stated that women cyclists often present with “numerous genital complaints including pain, numbness, and edema (swelling) of pelvic floor structures,” and so they decided to investigate how different bicycle seat designs affect the genital nerve function of female cyclists.
For the study, the researchers analyzed data collected from 48 female cyclists in a previous study comparing genital sensation in healthy, premenopausal, competitive women bicyclists and runners. They measured genital vibratory thresholds and saddle pressures using specially designed sensors. More than half of the participants (54.8%) used traditional saddles, and the remainder (45.2%) rode with cutout saddles. Upon analysis, the use of traditional saddles was associated with lower saddle pressure than riding on cutout saddles. Saddle width was also found to be significantly associated with saddle pressure. The use of wider saddles was found to be associated with lower overall pressure. The researchers concluded that cutout and narrower saddles negatively affect saddle pressures in female cyclists. They stated, however, that the effects of saddle design on pudendal nerve sensory function (a cause of some sexual dysfunctions in women) were not apparent in the analysis and that longitudinal studies evaluating the long-term effects of saddle pressure on the pudendal nerve, pelvic floor, and sexual function are warranted. They also stated that the results of their study “should be interpreted with caution due to the cross-sectional design of the study and the small sample size.”
A recent article published on the website www.WomensCycling.ca entitled “A Delicate Matter: Cycling and Genital Problems” discussed a 2003 study in Brussels that found that numbness, skin infections, chronic swelling and lymphatic damage are common among female cyclists. The article explains in detail why this happens. They explain that when a woman is riding a bicycle, her body makes contact with the saddle at three points: the two sitting bones, or the ischial tuberosities, and the soft-tissue between her legs. The sitting bones are designed to withstand body weight and pressure, but the soft-tissue of a woman’s genitalia is not. During long rides, the pressure exerted on soft-tissue can cause painful skin irritation and constrict blood flow. This can deaden the nerves. The article also discusses how the more stretched out a woman’s posture is on her bike, the more pressure is exerted on the soft-tissue, creating a greater possibility of sexual health problems.
In addition to the pain, numbness, and swelling of the genitals that can result from bike riding, women riders can also contract bacterial and yeast infections according to both of the above mentioned studies. This is likely due to the increased heat and sweat that builds up during a long ride, which creates a nurturing environment for bacteria and yeast. In order to prevent these issues from arising, www.WomensCycling.ca offers the following recommendations:
- Get the Right Saddle – Test different saddles for comfort. Adjust saddle height and the fore/aft position.
- Bike Fit – Take your bike to a cycling shop and have the mechanics check that your bike is adjusted properly to fit your body size.
- Padded Shorts – Get shorts with thick, seamless padding. Cycling shorts are meant to be worn without underwear.
- Use an Emollient – With clean hands apply a good emollient to your genital area and thighs to help prevent chafing. Find a chamois cream or jelly that works best for you. (Add a comment below if you can recommend a good product.)
- Practice Good Hygiene – Get out of your padded shorts as soon as you’ve finished your ride. Thoroughly wash and dry your crotch. Wash your padded shorts. NEVER cycle in shorts you haven’t washed.
- Go Vertical – Consider adjusting your bike stem and handles so your posture can be more vertical. Sixty degrees to the horizontal is recommended.
- Fidget – Move around on your saddle while you ride. Every 10 minutes, stand up in the pedals to give your “privates” a break from the pressure.
If vaginal problems persist or get worse, you may need to visit your doctor to find a solution.