Health Journal / By Tara Parker-Pope
Score One for the Couch Potatoes:
New Studies Link Bicycling to Impotence
THE NOTION THAT BICYCLING is linked to impotence has long been ridiculed. Now, new research is giving credence to the theory, even among once-ardent opponents in the cycling industry.
Last week, the biggest gathering of bicycle manufacturers in the country for the first time acknowledged the problem with a symposium, hosted by a noted urologist, called “Bicycle Riding: Good for Health, Bad for Sex, Fact or Fiction.” In the next few days, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is expected to publish research that found some erectile dysfunction among bicycle policemen. The health worries have even prompted a handful of manufacturers to develop newfangled bike seats aimed at solving the problem.
The concern that bike riding can increase a man’s risk for erectile dysfunction is a controversial message that has long been rejected by the cycling community. Two years after Bicycling magazine first reported on the risk for impotence, the magazine followed up with an article claiming cyclists actually make better lovers.
But even bike enthusiasts now concede the sport can cause problems. Chris Love, the 43-year-old manager of Landry’s Bicycles in Westboro, Mass., said he often experienced numbness after bike rides, and about live years ago began suffering from such significant erectile dysfunction he feared he wouldn’t have children.
Scaling back his long rides didn’t help. So he began using the Body Geometry bike seat, which has a triangle-shaped wedge cut out of the middle. After using the seat for three months, his problems abated.
Mr. Love, who now has a 16-month-old son, says customers come to his store every day complaining of problems. “You’re in the middle of a ride and things go numb, it’s very uncomfortable,” he says.
The problem, which can also occur with stationary bikes, is one of simple physics. When a person sits down on a chair, body weight is distributed over a wide surface area that includes the buttocks and thighs. But when someone gets on a bicycle seat, the weight is distributed over a much smaller area, increasing the pressure on the crotch by five or six times. A typical bike seat directs all that pressure against the perineum, the part of the body that contains the nerves and arteries to the genitals. Women can also experience numbness and sexual dysfunction as a result.
One 41-year-old Atlanta veterinarian who had hiked for three years suffered permanent damage to an artery after a 100mile ride. He underwent surgery to regain sexual function. “I wanted to believe it was psychological because I enjoyed biking so much,” he says.
It’s unclear how widespread the problem really is. Irwin Goldstein, a professor of urology and gynecology at the Boston University School of Medicine and the sport’s leading critic, says his research shows cyclists have four times the rate of impotence compared with track athletes. A 1997 Scandinavian study of cyclists taking part in a several-hundred-mile race found that 13% of riders had at least temporary impotence.
Urologists differ over whether biking is linked to impotence. Many doctors say the cardiovascular benefits of the sport likely would counteract any small additional risk for sexual problems.
But after a doctor noticed several Long Beach, Calif., bicycle policemen were complaining of numbness and erectile dysfunction, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, known as NIOSH, decided to study the matter. Researchers studied the quality and doration of night-time erections, a strong indicator of overall sexual health, among 17 bicycle policemen and five men who didn’t ride bikes. The study, to be published this month in the Journal of Andrology, showed that the policemen had erections during 27% of their sleep cycle compared with 43% among nonpolicemen, says Steven M. Schrader, chief of the reproductive health assessment section for NIOSH. In the study, 93% of the policemen said they experienced genital numbness.
The findings aren’t conclusive because the study was small, and NIOSH is planning more research. The policemen also stay on their bike about six hours a day, so the results can’t be applied to recreational bike use.
To address the problem, a handful of seat makers have introduced nose-less split-seat bike saddles, which Dr. Goldstein says ease the pressure on the perineum and allow for normal blood flow to the genital area. But the odd-looking seats have been slow to catch on.
“It’s a radical design,” says Jim Bombardier, president of Bycycle Inc., the Portland, Ore., maker of the BiSaddle seat, which sells for about $50.
Newspaper publisher Robert Dix, 63, of Hebron, Ohio, put BiSaddles on all three of his bikes after prostate surgery two years ago. He recently completed a 56-mile bike ride using the seat. “It takes a little while getting used to it,” he says. “But I stayed comfortable.”
Critics say it’s unrealistic to think most cyclists will use a nose-less seat, Bikers often feel they interfere with balance and are uncomfortable. As an alternative, Roger Minkow, a doctor who once designed ergonomic airline seats, created the Body Geometry seat now sold by Specialized Inc. of Morgan Hill, Calif. The saddle still has the long thin nose, but the wedge cut out of the seat is said to ease the pressure on the perineum, and in one small study, the majority of men said the seat did help relieve numbness and ED symptoms.
In addition to changing bicycle seats, Dr. Goldstein suggests limiting cycling to three hours a week or less, sitting upright to relieve pressure on the perineum, and getting up off the seat more often while riding.
Comments from Jim Bombardier, president of Bycycle Inc., on the Wall Street Journal article:
The design problems of the standard saddle go beyond ED. To me, the health issues for men are both ED and prostate cancer. Prostate cancer is the number one incident cancer and the number two cause of cancer deaths among US men and should be considered as much of an issue in bicycle riding (in my opinion ) as ED. Two of the saddles in your article do not address that issue and continue to put pressure on the perineum which is where the prostate is. Only the Hobson seat and my design eliminate pressure in that area. Our two saddle designs (Hobson and BiSaddle) are also the only two saddles in that article that eliminate pressure on female genitalia who represent a significant percentage of bicycle riders. While the Hobson seat has been around longer than mine, my saddle design (in my opinion) goes the next step in providing ergonomic design and adjustability.