DEAR DOCTOR K:
I’m an avid biker. But could my biking lead to erectile dysfunction?
Biking is an excellent form of exercise. But occasionally, if men who bicycle many hours each week are not careful, it can lead to temporary erectile dysfunction. Your question caused me to review articles on this topic that have been published in medical journals.
It appears that there are no studies large enough to give us a good idea of just how often bicyclists develop this condition. The risk appears to be highest for men who cycle more than three hours a week. I can’t find any published research study to support my speculation, but I’ll bet the risk is lower in using stationary bikes than in riding outdoors: The bumps in the road get transmitted through the bike seat.
One recent study compared 142 men in a bicycle club to 83 men who did not ride bicycles and found no difference in the rate of erectile dysfunction. This does not mean that frequent riding cannot cause sexual problems, but it probably means that it doesn’t happen very often.
The reason avid bikers sometimes get erectile dysfunction (ED) is that the seat puts pressure on the perineum. That’s the area between the genitals and anus that contains the nerves and arteries that run into the penis. A narrow bicycle seat places pressure on the perineum, compressing crucial nerves and arteries. This pressure can harm nerves and temporarily hinder blood flow, causing tingling or numbness in the penis and, eventually, ED.
Taking a few simple precautions when biking can help prevent sexual dysfunction:
- Get a wide, well-padded bicycle seat to absorb the impact of the ride. A gel-filled seat is a good choice. Narrow seats place the most pressure on the perineum.
- Position the seat so that it puts minimal pressure on the perineum. Make sure the seat is not so high that your legs are fully extended at the bottom of your pedal stroke. Don’t tilt the seat up.
- Raise the handlebars so that you’re sitting relatively upright. This will shift the pressure to your buttocks. They can handle the pressure much better than your perineum can — they’re better cushioned.
- For extra protection, consider wearing padded biking pants.
If you feel tingling or numbness in your penis, stop riding for a week or two. These are warning signs that your biking could lead to erectile problems. Even if you don’t feel any warning symptoms, it’s a good idea to change your position and take breaks during long rides.
Perhaps the best advice is to make biking one part of a balanced fitness program. Alternate riding with walking, jogging or swimming. Climb off your stationary bike and get on a treadmill, elliptical trainer or stair climber.