Scientists have known for some time that riding a bicycle can be bad for the health…of your penis. Repeated studies have demonstrated that male cyclists may experience penile numbness or serious pain, sometimes lasting days or even weeks after an extended ride. Now a study published in the August issue of the Journal of Sexual Medicine suggests that the solution may be fairly simple: Get a new bike seat.
Why exactly cycling causes men so many problems is a matter of educated speculation. Researchers have long suspected that the culprits include reduced circulation caused by the pressure put on the penis by the saddle, or compression of or around the pudendal nerve by the weight of the body resting on the saddle. Either way, the problem clearly rests—literally—on the saddle, which, with its traditional forward-tapering shape, puts a great deal of stress on the front of the rider's crotch.
To test the hypothesis that this discomfort could be rectified by a simple ergonomic change, researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Cincinnati found a natural group of test subjects—male bicycle police officers. Bike cops spend many hours in the saddle every week; in fact, the study's authors estimate that the average bike cop may ride for 24 hours per week—plenty of time to experience the full force of penile discomfort from traditional bike saddles.
Ninety officers from five different U.S. cities agreed to use a no-nosed saddle on their bicycles for a full six months as part of the study. This saddle lacks the familiar promontory on the front familiar from a standard bike saddle, and is wider at the back to redistribute the rider's weight. Simply learning to ride on the saddles can present something of a challenge—but the officers were prepared to face this. As the study's first author, Dr. Steven Schrader of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Cincinnati, put it, "No-nose saddles are a useful intervention for bicycling police officers alleviating pressure to the groin and improving penis health. Different saddle designs may require some re-learning of 'how to ride a bicycle,' but the health benefits to having unrestricted vascular flow to and from the penis and less penile numbness is self-evident."
To get a baseline of penile function, researchers took measurements before the study began. Officers were surveyed about their erectile function; had measurements taken of the pressure at their points of contact with the bike; and had their penile rigidity measured while they were sleeping, a procedure called a Rigiscan.
After six months of the noseless saddle, officers reported a substantial improvement in penile comfort and erectile function. In fact, only three of them had returned to the traditional saddle in the course of the study. At the end of the study, 82 percent of the officers reported that they had experienced no penile numbness in the last six months—up from 27 percent at the start of the study. Pressure measurements showed that there was a 66 percent reduction in saddle contact pressure in the region of the penis. And, though Rigiscan measurements were unchanged (which researchers attribute to a need for more recovery time from the deleterious effects of the old saddles), there was a significant improvement in penile tactile sensitivity measurements and erectile function compared to the initial survey. Perhaps most telling of all, 97 percent of the participating officers reported that they would not return to the traditional saddle.
In an editorial accompanying the study's publication, Dr. Irwin Goldstein, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Sexual Medicine, described the impact of the research: "Not only did [the officers'] sensation improve, their erectile function also improved. Changing saddles changed physiology. This is a landmark study for our field that that is important for future riders, and modification of lifestyle showing improvement without any active treatment." For even amateur cyclists who have ever experienced that troubling pain and numbness, it's also good to know that a solution is at hand.
On a related note, you may be wondering about that other rumored consequence of time spent on a bike seat: testicular cancer. Many people think that bike riding increases the risk for this disease, which is the most common kind of cancer found in younger men. But it turns out that, according to research conducted to date, bike seats are not to blame for this one. The Encyclopedia of Medicine reports that: "Studies examining the relationship of testicular trauma, such as may occur with bike riding, and the occurrence of testicular cancer found that trauma does not contribute to testicular cancer." So, change your bike seat to alleviate your penile discomfort—but keep it up with the routine testicular self-examinations.