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Cycling can be a Pain in the Neck – part 1

By Mary Patterson

cycling and neck and shoulder painCycling is an activity that requires the body to maintain a position of prolonged back flexion, placing greater demands on the neck. As a result, neck pain is one of the most common complaints experienced by cyclists. Does this sound familiar? You are only half way through your ride and your neck and upper trapezius start to tighten up and ache. You shift your position around to provide some relief, but by the end of your ride, your neck is really aching, and you have a hard time shoulder checking.

Many cyclists think this is a normal consequence of cycling, a sacrifice you have to make in order to ride a bike. But neck pain while cycling is not normal. Cycling should be a comfortable and enjoyable activity. Neck pain on your bike, is a warning sign that your position on your bike is creating undue stress on your neck and should be corrected.

Neck pain can lead to an overuse injury. Micro-trauma to tissue, caused by repetitive sub-maximal loading, without adequate rest, can lead to damaging inflammation and a clinical injury. When referring to neck pain in this article, it will include the neck, the upper trapezius and the muscles between the shoulder blades. Cycling-induced neck and shoulder pain can also cause headaches and tingling in the hands.

Here are a number of causes of neck pain, followed by their solutions to eliminate and prevent it.

Poor Posture

The main cause of neck pain is poor posture. Sometimes it is simply a bad habit, left over from your day job sitting at your desk, that needs to be corrected. But more often it is the result of a poor position on your bike that is causing poor posture. Your goal on your bike, and anywhere for that matter, is to maintain a good neutral spine posture. This is the position where there is the least strain on your joints and the least amount of muscle work. Poking your chin forwards and hyperextending your neck places uncomfortable stress on the posterior joints in your neck, particularly if sustained for a long period of time. Overusing cervical extensors and upper trapezius muscles will lead to painful fatigue.

Tips for Good Posture

  •  Keep your chest up and your chin down. Think of maintaining as straight a line as possible through your spine.
  •  Shoulders should be relaxed, not hunched up to your ears.
  • Elbows should be unlocked, not collapsed, allowing a slight bend in your elbows to act as shock absorbers.
  • Look only a safe distance ahead down the road. You don’t need to see the clouds, only the potholes and other hazards in front of you.
  • Change your hand position regularly to reduce muscle fatigue.
  • Regularly stretch your neck during more relaxed parts of your ride.

The body makes contact with the bike at three points: the pedals, the saddle and the handlebars. Improper position of the seat and handlebars can place abnormal stress on the neck and shoulders. When everything on your bike is in the correct position, this neutral spine posture should be more natural and effortless. Here are a number of bike fitting faults that can cause neck pain.

Drop is too Low

The handlebars are set too low, relative to your seat height. In this position, if you need to crane your neck to see down the road, you will be forcing your neck into an overextended position. This can be even more of a problem when riding in lower aerobars. Over time this position will create joint strain from the sustained poor posture. The cervical extensor muscles which hold your head up will fatigue with prolonged use. Over time, this will lead to uncomfortable neck pain.

  • Raise your stem or change to a steeper angled stem.

As this is one of the most common position faults, many people jump to this conclusion when trying to address neck pain. But there are many more fitting faults that cause neck pain that get overlooked.

Saddle Tilt is too Nose Down

A saddle that is tilted too nose down will cause you to slide off the front of your saddle and you will place more weight on your hands to hold yourself up. Your upper trapezius and shoulder muscles will work unnecessarily hard to support your weight, leading to early fatigue and pain.

  • The saddle tilt should be either slightly nose down (1 degree) or level for a more upright rider.

Saddle Tilt is too Nose Up

A saddle that is too nose up will cause your pelvis and back to go into a poor slouched posture to avoid discomfort in the crotch area. Poor back posture will continue up the entire spine causing a poking chin, which in turn will strain the neck.

  • Correct the saddle tilt as described above.

Poor Saddle

An uncomfortable saddle will cause you to sit in poor posture, resulting in neck pain over time.

Your saddle can affect how the whole bike feels below and above it.

  • Buy a comfortable saddle that suits YOU.

In our next issue Mary covers how handlebar position, helmets and glasses can contribute to neck problems.

Mary Paterson is a physiotherapist and a certified bike fit professional. An avid road and mountain cyclist, Mary has over 19 years of sports medicine experience. Her business, Bike 2 Body, offers physiotherapy and bike fitting for cyclists.

Mary brings her medical knowledge of sports injuries and biomechanics to the diagnosis and treatment of cycling injuries and applies them to the ideal bike fit.

We want to know what you think! Scroll down to leave a comment.

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9 comments to Cycling can be a Pain in the Neck – part 1

  • Caren

    I have this problem and when it occurs, it takes forever to resolve. My chiropractor and physical therapist can’t seem to pin point where the pain is coming from exactly. Is the trapezius the only muscle involved in this pain? It feels really deep to me and seems to travel from the base of my neck down the left side of my upper spine.

  • Jill

    I have disc replacement and a rod in my neck. I notice my mt bike I ride on the rode causes pain high up between shoulder. Looking to buy a rode bike, would lower bars help??

    • LS

      Hi Jill,

      Sorry, an injury like that’s beyond our level of expertise. Best to check with a qualified therapist who also knows about bike fit. You can email Mary directly. She may have helpful suggestions.

  • Katie

    Thank you for your post but my shoulder still hurts. Strange thing I have never had shoulder pain before. I been always cycling to and from work and between. This time I am a Curier and I spend a lot of time on the bike. I went thru all you said up here and I still have a problem with it and it’s only one shoulder that hurts me in the left hand side.
    Can you help me please?

    • LS

      Hi Katie,

      I’m sorry to hear about your shoulder problem. If the suggestions in the article haven’t alleviated your shoulder pain, it would be best for you to consult a sports doctor to get help for your specific problem. It could be related to something other than your bike.

  • […] pain—unless I take a long ride on my bicycle where my neck is bent for two hours. According to Women’s Cycling.ca, good posture can be maintained even on a bike, so I guess I need to work on that […]

  • Wrong

    The posture that you describe is not the posture for the least amount of aerodynamic drag, or for the most pedal power.

    This is advice for Sunday cruisers, not for serious cyclists.

  • Helene

    Good fit, no pain! So true! Having Mary do a bike fit for me years ago has been a great investment for thousands of km of pain free biking.

  • Diane

    Thanks for the great info. I had been off my bike for 5 weeks. I just took a 5 mile ride, and my neck hurts already.

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