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 "Bicycle Seats and Impotence"

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Bike Seats and Impotence

Reports linking long term cycling and bicycle seats and impotence date back to the '70s, but they were widely ignored or discounted -- until 1997.

That's when Ed Pavelka, former executive editor of Bicycling magazine, publicly acknowledged that a particularly long-distance year in the saddle had left him limp.

Apparently, prolonged pressure from his bike seat had damaged the blood vessels in his perineum, the shadowy plain between the scrotum and the anus that serves as a blood highway to you-know-where.

Warning Signs For Riders

Soon, other two-wheel enthusiasts were coming forward to report incidents of pain and numbness in the genitals, sometimes leading to urological or sexual dysfunction. "The numbness indicates a 'pressure palsy' on the nerve that accompanies the artery to the penis," explains Pavelka's doc, Irwin Goldstein, M.D., co-director of the Urology Research Laboratory at the Boston University School of Medicine and a sworn enemy of the conventional racing seat.

"Half the penis is actually inside the body, and when a guy sits on one of these skinny bicycle seats, he's putting his entire body weight on the artery that supplies the penis," Goldstein says. "Skinny seats should be called 'straddles' to remind people who ride them what they are doing to that part of their body."

In his practice, Ken Taylor, M.D., a sports-medicine specialist at Scripps Clinic in San Diego, has seen many riders gradually develop a telltale numbness. "The more they get it, the easier it is to get again," Taylor says, "and the longer it goes on, the more likely it is to cause bigger problems like erectile dysfunction in men or inability to have orgasms in women."

What The Study Found

Goldstein's studies, the most recent of which was reported at the American Urological Association conference in Dallas, have revealed that it takes just 11 percent of a man's weight to compress the penile arteries flat between the seat and the pubic bone. The arteries usually spring back to their regular shape, but Goldstein asserts that repeated compression may injure the arteries, leading to blockages that could result in erectile dysfunction. "We studied the prevalence of ED in runners vs. cyclists and found a four-fold increase in ED in the cyclists," he says.

Many of the newer saddles on the market are specifically designed to eliminate perineal pressure. There are wider seats, seats with no "nose," split seats (one for each cheek), hammock seats, gel-filled seats, pneumatic seats (one is called the DerriAir), seats with wedges and seats with holes cut out of the middle.

If you sit at the front edge of a chair or bench, you'll feel your weight resting on your two "sit bones," known as the ischial tuberosities. For proper skeletal support on a saddle, you must position yourself on these bones. This can cause initial discomfort, especially in recreational cyclists, so the tendency is to lean forward, right onto the perineum. Competitive cyclists (triathletes in particular) also lean forward, but they do it to achieve a more aerodynamic position; they also commonly lean into the seat's nose on turns.

Yet neither your seat nor your position on it will matter if the bike itself is not a good fit, according to Ed Burke, Ph.D., author of seven books on cycling and professor of exercise science at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. "If Dr. Goldstein was totally right, everyone in the Tour de France would be impotent or have pain and numbness in the genitals."

Cycling is a great sport, but you don't have to sacrifice your health and comfort to poor positioning or equipment.

In other words: If it doesn't fit, you must not sit.

Jim Shaw

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