What to Do When Riding Your Bike is a Pain in the Neck
Nix neck soreness with these 3 tips from a physical therapist
The exhilaration of the breeze rushing by as you zoom down a path. The freedom of getting from here to there on your own pedal power. The literal pain in the neck that creeps up the longer you ride. One of these is not the reward you bargained for when taking up cycling as a hobby.
“The position of riding a bike isn’t necessarily one that the body was designed to perform,” says physical therapist Erik Moen, founder of BikePT.com. “Particularly on a road bike with a steeper forward lean, it puts a lot of extension on the cervical spine.” It’s not uncommon for new cyclists to experience some neck discomfort as their bodies adjust and become stronger, which is why Moen recommends starting with short rides and taking frequent breaks. If the pain persists, try these suggestions.
Adjust the saddle. When you first got your bike, you should have had the seat height fitted to your body size. One attribute that may have been overlooked, however, is the angle of the saddle. Oftentimes, people (especially men) think that a forward tilt will make the ride more comfortable between their legs. But “if the seat is improperly tilted downwards, it puts more pressure onto the hands, shoulders and neck to hold the body in position,” Moen explains. “It’s kind of like having to do a pushup to maintain your seat on the bike.”
If you notice you’re frequently shifting your butt back on the saddle, it may have a downward slope. Adjust the seat angle, and more of your weight will naturally shift back, relieving an overworked upper body.
Inspect the handlebars. Internet advice for neck pain will suggest raising the handlebars, but Moen says that oversimplifies the problem. “It’s true that as the trunk angles lower down, the neck has to extend more to see down the road, a position that’s more common the lower your handlebars. But handlebars that are too low or too high, too close or too far can be a problem.” If the bars are too close or too high, you may be crunching your shoulders up. If you have to reach too far out or too low, your neck may sag.
Related: 5 Gadgets to Make Biking Safer
Look at how the handlebar position relates to the rest of your body. “You want the arms to be able to meet the handlebars without having to make any irregular position of the shoulder blades,” Moen says. Typically, this means a height that’s about level with the seat or a bit higher, and an armpit angle less than 90 degrees. (On a hybrid the angle will likely be more acute than on a road bike, which may be close to 90.)
(Photo: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)
Get your body checked. “Older adults are taking up cycling in huge numbers, but they may have pre-existing conditions that need to be addressed,” Moen says. Slouchy shoulder posture is extremely common thanks to lives spent in front of computers, and it can become exacerbated from cycling. A physical therapist can evaluate and figure out if muscle imbalance, weakness or inflexibility are what’s leading to the stress on your neck and can prescribe exercises that strengthen or elongate muscles to improve posture. See a doctor immediately if you experience profound debilitating headaches or radiations of pain or numbness down one arm or both arms, signs of a more serious neurological problem.