In September 1997, Ed Pavelka, a columnist with Bicycling magazine, made a startling revelation: He had erectile dysfunction from riding his bike. He wrote at the time: "...tests revealed that the blood flow to my penis had become so restricted that I was incapable of an erection firm enough for sexual intercourse."
Pavelka's conviction that biking had led to his problem was soon backed up by medical authority. Irwin Goldstein, MD, a specialist of erectile dysfunction with the Boston University Medical Center, was widely quoted in the press saying that all male cyclists risked erectile dysfunction, and that they should consider giving up the sport if they enjoyed sex.
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Goldstein, whose patients included a number of cyclists with sexual dysfunction, performed a study at Boston University Medical Center to investigate the connection. His 1997 study showed that cyclists experienced more sexual dysfunction than athletes who didn't bike. Cyclists' complaints included erectile dysfunction, groin and penile numbness, and problems urinating.
But what was it about cycling that led particularly to erectile dysfunction? Goldstein's study hadn't uncovered a cause, but another study done at the University of California, San Diego, offered an explanation. The study -- done in conjunction with Serfas, a bicycle accessory company in Lake Forest, Calif. -- found that the rub lies not in cycling itself but in the seats.
"Men can develop erectile dysfunction after sitting on a hard bicycle seat for many hours because they compress an area of the anatomy known as the perineum," explains Ken Taylor, MD, a former assistant clinical professor of family medicine at UCSD and a co-researcher in the 1999 cycling-impotence study. The perineum is the area between the anus and the scrotum.
Tim Roddy, M.D., a urologist in Edmonds, Wash., agrees that the pressure of sitting on a bike seat can cause the problem: "A man can squeeze off some of the vital arteries and nerves necessary for normal sexual functioning by sitting on a hard bicycle seat too long," he says.