Biking and Erectile Dysfunction: A Real Risk?
Some experts say ED may be an unwelcome side effect of bicycle riding.
Police Bike Patrol Study
Some new saddle designs take the weight off the perineum, according to
Steven Schrader, PhD, of the National Institute for Occupational Safety &
Health (NIOSH). Schrader triggered an explosion of research on the link between
cycling and ED in 2002 when he published a study involving members of a police
bicycle patrol. He found that the more hours the officers spent in the saddle,
the more likely they were to experience a decrease in the quality of nighttime
All this research spurred the development of several no-nose bicycle seats,
and Schrader has tested several.
"We recruited police officers and gave them no-nose seats to use for six
months," Schrader says. "We're still doing data analysis, but the
striking thing is that of the 91 men who completed the study, only three had
returned to a traditional saddle. When we went back and found those three guys,
two of them said their saddle had broken and they wanted a new one. Only one
said he didn't like it."
No-nose seats have a wide rear that distributes the rider's weight on his
sit bones on the buttocks. One study in Germany found that oxygen levels in
blood flow to the penis dropped by only about 20% when riders were on a no-nose
seat. A traditional bicycle saddle reduces oxygen in blood flow by around
The Grooved Seat
Bike saddles that feature a groove down the middle or holes in the center to
alleviate pressure can actually make the problem worse by increasing pressure
on either side of the groove.
"They feel better," Schrader said of the grooved seats. "With
the traditional saddle you're sitting on your internal penis. You can feel it.
When it drops into the groove it feels better, but if you're increasing the
pressure on either side, you're still compressing the artery and the nerves.
The wider the seat, the farther back you sit, the better off you're going to
The problem affects women too, although not as conspicuously. Schrader
recently participated in a study that found the genitalia of competitive female
cyclists were desensitized by long hours of riding.
"Some gynecologists say it doesn't hurt their sex life so who
cares," Schrader says, "but I say if they're causing physiologic
damage, that should be a concern."
Cycling has been commonplace for well over a century. Yet the relationship
to ED wasn't widely noticed until 1997 when Ed Pavelka, former executive editor
of Bicycling magazine, acknowledged his own erectile difficulties after
a year of high-mileage cycling.
Why did it take so long for this problem to come to light?
Actually, it didn't. "Cyclists were talking about numbness in the groin
as far back as the 1890s," says Schrader. "Ads used to say that this
bicycle saddle is the only one that doesn't cause permanent damage. This has
been known about for a long time."
After Pavelka brought the
problem to public attention, research has consistently supported the connection
between cycling and ED. Yet despite ample research showing that a
traditional bike seat and improper cycling position can reduce blood flow and
compress nerves, some cycling enthusiasts continue to argue that the health
benefits of bike riding outweigh the dangers of ED.
But Schrader contends that evidence to the contrary is overwhelming. True,
not every man who rides a bicycle will experience a problem. "One would not
expect that every bicyclist would suffer from ED any more than one would expect
every smoker would get lung cancer," he wrote in a recent editorial in
The Journal of Sexual Medicine. Nevertheless, the time has come to
develop effective strategies to reduce this danger. "The health benefits
from having unrestricted vascular flow to and from the penis are
self-evident," he says.