While the human body has evolved over millions of years, bicycles only appeared on the scene in the 1800s. Anyone who has endured an aching neck or back while riding will tell you that the human spine has not yet evolved to accommodate long periods of time in the saddle.
When the spine is kept in a position other than its neutral alignment for a prolonged period of time, discs can protrude, bones can degenerate, nerves can become pinched and muscles can become strained…any one of which can lead to some miserable rides.
Since a simple matter of evolution has never stopped humans from pushing their bodies to extremes, the good news is that if the body is properly conditioned to adapt to prolonged periods of non-ideal spinal posture, the chance of injury can be minimized.
Effects on the Neck
There is a sweet moment of relief that can be found during a ride by briefly dipping your head to feel that nice stretch along the back of your neck. Unfortunately, looking down while riding is a rather dangerous proposition, so we must keep our neck extended – a position which, when combined with a rounded back can result in pain or fatigue.
Extending your neck for long periods of time causes your chest, shoulder and neck muscles to shorten or tighten, which can cause muscle strains and place an abnormal pull on your spine.
You can decrease strain on the upper trapezius (see diagram) by strengthening the muscles between the shoulder blades (which act as stabilizers for the shoulders and neck) and stretching the muscles of the chest.
Effects on the Low Back/Pelvis
The tight aerodynamic bike position that allows for a more effortless ride can also place a strain on your lower back and hips. This position results in shortened hip flexors (muscles in the front of the hips) and quadriceps (muscles in the front of the thigh), which can further increase strain on the lower back when tight.
Tight muscles in the front of the hips can cause weaknesses in the gluteal muscles (buttocks), which serve two important functions when cycling. The outermost layer (gluteus maximus) provides the power generation during the pedal stroke by creating stable, strong hips and stabilizing the pelvis. The inner layers (gluteus minimus and medius) control excessive rotation and side-to-side motions at the hip which, if weakened, can limit efficiency of the pedal stroke.
The Importance of Core Strength
Those six-pack abs, known clinically as the rectus abdominis, might look great at the beach but don’t be fooled into thinking that they are a proper indication of good core stability.
It's actually the deeper, less showy, abdominal muscles (external and internal oblique and transversus abdominis) that are most responsible for maintaining core strength.
As a cyclist, your ability to maintain a non-ideal spinal position over a prolonged period of time and avoid injury depends on strengthening all of your core muscles.
Fitting the Bike to You
Finally, ensuring a proper bike fit will to allow you to enjoy the sport with decreased risk for short- or long-term injury to the spine. The position of the handlebars in relation to the seat is key to optimizing the spinal position when riding. This can have a dramatic impact on the function and health of bones, joints, muscles and nerves.
Like any sport, cycling is associated with risk for injury. But, if you take care to condition your muscles and properly adjust your bike to your body, cycling can bring you a lifetime of enjoyment!
When to seek medical attention for your neck or back pain
If you notice any of the following symptoms you should seek medical attention immediately:
- Pins and needles in the genital region
- Loss of bowel or bladder function
- Spine pain after a fall
- Onset of sudden muscle weakness in the arms or legs