Many male cyclists worry that cycling may cause them to experience penis numbness, erectile dysfunction, and even prostate cancer. In this post and video, we draw on the expertise of eminent urologist and Iron Man Dr. Anthony Koupparis to address those concerns. We think you will find this post mostly reassuring. We also offer suggestions to avoid penis numbness and related problems, in the section called What Male Cyclists Can Do to Prevent Erectile Dysfunction.
First, watch the video below, in which Dr. Koupparis talks frankly about what you should worry about, and what you don’t need to worry about.
Video About Whether Cycling Negatively Impacts Men’s Sexual Health and Causes Erectile Dysfunction and Prostate Cancer
This video is from the excellent YouTube channel, Global Cycling Network. It has over 2 million subscribers, no doubt due to the wealth of great videos on their channel. Topics are of course cycling-related, including tons of fitness videos, and how-to videos.
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Basic Male Anatomy and Cycling
The root of the problem is of course the fact that when you cycle, you spend a lot of time with all your body weight bearing down on a small but sensitive part of your anatomy. Basically, you are putting pressure on your perineum. This is a small but vitally important part of your body. You experience it as the soft tissue between your testicles and your butt. As such, you probably don’t pay it much attention. However, there is a whole lot going on there!
The perineum houses a number of structures that are important to vital bodily functions, such as erections and excretions. One of the structures in the perineum is the urethra, which sends urine to the outside world, via your penis.
Also clustered in the perineum is your pudendal nerve, which gives sensation to the area. This nerve is essential for erectile function. For very obvious reasons, no one wants to damage that nerve! Just above the pudendal nerve is your prostate, a gland that makes seminal fluid.
Given all of this, it is not surprising that many men worry about whether hours of cycling will negatively impact their sexual health. In particular, some of us worry about whether too much cycling might cause penis numbness, erectile problems, and even prostate cancer. Let’s take a look at each of those pressing concerns.
Penis Numbness Caused by Cycling
When you are sitting on a bike saddle, you are applying pressure to the nerves and blood vessels in your perineum. This pressure can cause temporary damage to your nerves, and reduced blood flow, resulting in temporary numbness. While it is a very disconcerting feeling, it is usually nothing to worry about.
Penis numbness that happens once is almost never a serious problem, and usually will not cause any long-term problems. IIn short, it is not a cause for panic. However, it does alert you to the fact that you need to make some changes. These include getting the right saddle and getting a bike fit. More about that below in this post, in the section called What Male Cyclists Can Do to Prevent Erectile Dysfunction.
Don’t Ignore Numbness
A Harvard Special Health Report, Erectile Dysfunction: How medication, lifestyle changes, and other therapies can help you conquer this vexing problem, reported that in some circumstances, cycling can damage nerves and compress arteries in the penis. This in turn can potentially lead to erectile problems, usually only temporarily. The risk was highest among men who cycled more than three hours a week.
In short, if you have repeated and extended numbness and you ignore it, you could cause long-term damage to sensation in the area. You could even end up with erectile dysfunction. So, do not ignore it!
Does Cycling Cause Erectile Dysfunction?
On the other hand, Dr. Koupparis’s advice is to stop worrying that cycling will cause erectile dysfunction. Occasional cycling-related numbness will not lead to erectile dysfunction. Assuming that you don’t ignore repeated numbness, you should be fine.
In fact, a study reported in the Journal of Men’s Health found that cycling usually does not pose a serious threat of infertility or erectile dysfunction. A total of 5,300 male cyclists completed questionnaires about how much cycling they did, and whether they had been diagnosed with infertility, or had experienced symptoms of erectile dysfunction. The results showed no clear correlation between many hours of cycling and infertility or erectile dysfunction.
If You Are Having Problems with Erectile Dysfunction, See a Doctor
Dr. Koupparis points out that if you are experiencing erectile dysfunction, you should look beyond your bike for the cause. The culprit is more likely to be something else. The processes that cause erectile problems are the same processes that cause cardiovascular disease. If you have diabetes, high blood pressure, or you smoke, then you are likely to have heart disease, or to develop it. You are also likely to have erectile dysfunction, because those exact same factors also lead to erectile dysfunction.
In short, if you are a middle-aged or older male cyclist who starts having erectile dysfunction, your first thought should not be that it is caused by your bike rides. In fact, quitting cycling at that point could make the real cause worse. Because it is more likely that the erectile problems are connected to underlying health issues, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, or diabetes. Ironically, if that is the case, cycling could be helping the problem, not causing it! See this extract from an academic journal:
“Studies have shown that a sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of heart disease and the probability of developing erectile dysfunction. … men who remained physically inactive had the highest risk for erectile dysfunction, whereas those who began exercising or who continued to exercise throughout the study had the lowest levels of erectile dysfunction. This new Massachusetts Male Aging Study analysis further confirms the value of exercise, particularly bicycling. … There was also some suggestion that substituting bicycling for another activity may even protect against ED.” (Dr. I. Goldstein, see List of Sources at end of post. Emphasis added.)
So, the point is, if you start experiencing erectile dysfunction, your first response should not be to stop cycling. Instead, recognize it as a possible symptom of a serious health condition, and get medical advice as soon as possible. Make sure that you get help for any underlying health problems, and at the same time, also get treatment for the erectile dysfunction.
Does Cycling Cause Prostate Cancer?
A lot of cycling can lead to some irritation of the prostate. This can lead to misleading results in a routine medical test for prostate cancer. Basically, it can give you an artificially raised reading in a PSA (Prostate-Specific Antigen) test. And in turn, this can lead to your doctor ordering a whole lot more tests.
However, cycling does not cause prostate cancer, according to Dr. Koupparis. Cycling actually improves your fitness and cardiovascular health, and by so doing, helps to prevent cancer.
Cycling Improves Your Health
A massive number of studies have proven that exercise like cycling causes clear improvements in cardiovascular health, and improves life for people with angina. Overall, exercise reduces your risk of death due to heart disease by 31%. And it may reduce the risk of developing heart disease by up to 50%.
There is also increasing evidence that if you stay active after a cancer diagnosis, you will slow the progression of the disease and live longer. This has been shown most clearly in cases of prostate cancer. Patients with prostate cancer who exercised had a 57% lower rate of cancer progression.
(Source: Academy of Medical Royal Colleges. Exercise: The miracle cure and the role of the doctor in promoting it. February 2015.)
The good news is that cycling is unlikely to cause impotence or prostate cancer! But ideally, you want to avoid ever having any kind of penis numbness or prostate irritation. Incidentally, all of the advice below will also help to prevent saddle soreness – which includes chafing and saddle sores.
No. 1: Get Your Bike Fitted Properly
To reduce pressure points, it is essential to have your bike fitted to your body. Don’t assume your new bike will just magically match your body, even if it is the right size. For example, almost everyone has a leg that is slightly shorter than the other. This means that you will be shifting on the saddle at the bottom of each rotation, which can create a chafe point in your groin area. Sometimes all that is needed is a simple shim in your shoe to equalize the length.
If your bike does not fit your body, all kinds of problems can ensue. These include back, knee, hip, and elbow pain. And more to the point here, an ill-fitting bike can cause numbness in the last place we want to have it!
Professional Bike Fitting
The best solution is a professional bike fitting. The aim is to customize your bike to you so that it fits perfectly. As a result, most of your weight will be on your ischial tuberosities (your sit bones), or on the pubic rami (the pelvic bones, which are further forward). Where your weight rests will depend on your cycling position. The key is not to have too much weight on your soft tissues.
Professional bike fittings are usually expensive. But if you can afford it, they are worth their weight in gold. If you have been experiencing problems with numbness in your penis, be sure to tell your bike fitter about it. Similarly, if you have had abnormal results for a PSA (Prostate-Specific Antigen) test, be sure to tell your bike fitter about it. In the unlikely event that your bike fitter seems unconcerned about these issues, find a different bike fitter.
Electronic Pressure Mappers
The most expensive bike fittings will include measurements done with an electronic pressure mapper. This will expose potential pain areas where your body is in contact with the saddle in minutes. If you can afford this, you could save yourself hours of painful trial and error, trying to find the right saddle and fit it correctly.
Of course, you need to be lucky enough to have this service available in your area, and be able to afford it. Expect to pay hundreds of dollars.
Do It Yourself Bike Fitting
If you cannot afford a professional bike fitting, the book below will help you do your own bike fitting. Bike Fit: Optimise Your Bike Position for High Performance and Injury Avoidance is written by Phil Burt. Burt is the head physiotherapist at British Cycling and Team Sky. Working with the UK Sport’s Research and Innovation team, Burt has played a leading role in researching saddle soreness problems.
No. 2: Get the Right Bike Saddle
Once your bike is perfectly fitted to your body, you need to turn your attention to your saddle. Note that a professional bike fitting will include help with your saddle. But if you don’t have access to that, there is plenty you can do to make sure your saddle is helping the situation, not making it worse.
First, it is important to get the right saddle to suit your body. We have two related posts that can help with that.
Related Posts to Help You Pick Out the Right Saddle and Fit it Properly
It can be tough to find the right saddle. One way is to find a bike shop that will let you try saddles out.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) studied 17 members of a bike police patrol unit in Ohio. These police men spent over 5 hours per day on their bikes. Almost all of them reported occasional genital numbness. And the more they rode, the more likely they were to have symptoms of erectile dysfunction. The NIOSH did a follow-up study, in which they established that using a no-nose saddle relieved symptoms of numbness and erectile dysfunction. (Reference: Dr. H.B. Simon, see Sources at end of post.)
Tips on Getting Your Bike Saddle Right
It’s not only about finding the right saddle; it’s also important to mount it correctly. This may be a case of trial and error, because what works for one man doesn’t necessarily work for all men. A couple of things to remember:
- Usually you would want to have your saddle completely straight, parallel to the ground. But it that is uncomfortable, try tipping the nose of your saddle down by a degree or two. This may reduce pressure on your most sensitive areas.
- Standing on the pedals every ten minutes or so could help to keep your blood flowing and reduce pressure.
- If at all possible, on long bike rides, take periodic breaks from the saddle. Get off and stretch – that will give your perineum a break, and help the rest of your body too.
- More padding does not always translate into more comfort. A lot of people praise Brooks saddles, which are made of hard leather, which conforms to the shape of your body over time.
For a made-in-the-USA option, the famous Selle Anatomica saddles combine quality leather materials with anatomical science, to bring you a saddle with a slot that is designed to reduce perineal pressure, sit bone pain, and saddle soreness in general. The slot design also gives the saddle great flexibility, with the result that the “break-in” period, during which the saddle adapts to your body, is much faster than with traditional leather saddles. These saddles also have extra long rails, increasing the extent to which you can adjust the saddle forward or backwards. I have one of these saddles, and it is my all-time favorite saddle.
Finally, one cure for saddle soreness is to ride more often. Sometimes the first few rides of the season can be painful, but then our bodies adjust. As with most things, it is important to start slowly and build up gradually. This is most definitely not a situation of “No pain, no gain!”
No. 3: Get Good Cycling Shorts
Good cycling shorts are essential, even if you only cycle once a week. They will help to minimize the chances of penis numbness, by providing an anatomically-appropriate layer of protection between your body and the saddle. This protective layer is provided by a chamois that is intended to provide cushioning at points of contact between your body and your bike. It should not have seams to irritate your skin.
Cycling shorts are designed to minimize chafing on long bike rides. They help by wicking moisture away from your skin. And the seams are carefully placed to reduce irritation and chafing. More expensive shorts are usually more skillfully designed to avoid chafing. If you do multi-day rides, you will need at least two pairs of shorts. This is so that you have a clean and dry pair at all times.
These very highly rated Sponeed men’s cycling shorts are made with form-fitting polyester, spandex, and lycra, with grips to stop them riding up. The idea is that if the shorts don’t move, they won’t chafe you. The padding is gel, molded to male anatomy.
No. 4: Consider Getting Bib Shorts
Bib shorts are shorts with an attached top. They are usually more expensive than regular shorts, and can make toilet breaks a bit tricky. However, they are worth their weight in gold because they substantially reduce the chance of saddle soreness.
Marijn de Vries, retired pro bike racer from Holland, says:
“A really good, well-fitting pair of bib-shorts will definitely help … the bibs keep the [chamois] pad firmly in place and make them much more comfortable. And you should use plenty of chammy cream.”
Here is a well rated bit short that is on sale right now.
Chamois cream will help to keep your chamois from irritating your body. This cream can be applied to the chamois directly, or to your body. It is usually less messy to apply it to the specific parts of your body that are prone to chafing. A good cream will reduce friction between skin-to-skin points or skin-to-fabric points.
No. 6: Try an Anti-Chafing Gel
Some men experience chafing on the inner thighs, especially when using a wider saddle. If so, consider an anti-chafing gel. Many triathletes use these. They are especially prone to chafing since they jump on a saddle while still wet from a swim! The gel is designed to provide a silky protective layer.
No. 7: Do Not Wear Underwear!
It is important to not wear underwear with your cycling shorts. If you add a layer of underwear, this will impede your short’s ability to wick moisture away from your body. And it may move around and bunch up, increasing the chance of chafing and saddle sores.
Bottom Line on Cycling and Erectile Dysfunction, Penis Numbness, and Prostate Cancer
If you are having frequent or persistent numbness in your penis, do NOT ignore it. In fact, the first time you experience numbness after a bike ride, you should take immediate steps to improve your saddle and your bike fit. It should be possible to get your bike set up so that you do not experience penis numbness.
If you are having any kind of erectile dysfunction, don’t quit cycling! Instead, have your health checked out. Don’t panic, but do consult a health professional and have a frank talk about what tests you should be having. Whatever the problem, the sooner you have it checked out, the better your prospects for recovery.
And don’t be shy about performance problems. Talk to your friends about their experiences, and talk about yours. Communication can help all of us figure out if our symptoms are cause for concern.
Finally, stop worrying about cycling causing prostate cancer. It won’t. However, if you have uncontrolled diabetes or untreated high blood pressure, or you haven’t quit smoking yet, this could cause cancer. On the other hand, cycling will reduce your risk of cancer. And if you do have the ill fortune to get prostate cancer, cycling will improve your outcomes.
I hope this post will help you to worry less and cycle more!
Sources Used in this Post on Erectile Dysfunction
Guardian, The. Does cycling really damage men’s sexual organs?
Goldstein, Irwin, MD. Boston University School of Medicine. Sexual Medicine. Erectile Dysfunction and Bicycling.
Harvard Special Health Report. Erectile Dysfunction: How medication, lifestyle changes, and other therapies can help you conquer this vexing problem.
Simon, Harvey B, MD. Harvard Health Publishing. Biking and Sex — Avoid the Vicious Cycle. 2012.
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