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Thursday, January 17, 2008

How Bicycle Seats Affect Sexuality

Photo: Uli Harder

Everyone knows that exercise is good for sexual well being, but it turns out that some forms of exercise come with a downside when it comes to sex. I would really like to be reporting on scientific research for both women and men in what follows here, but so far, the evidence-based conclusions have only been completed for men. We can extrapolate a bit for women and I do have some practical tips that might prove useful for dedicated female “roadies.”

As early as the 1890s, numbness in the genital area was associated with sitting on a bicycle saddle. Scientific findings during the last 20 years have described the problems in the perineum (the area between the anus and the clitoris or penis, commonly called the “crotch”) that can occur due to compression by bicycle saddles. Despite the research, in-person and online testimonials exist touting men who do miles and miles of cycling yet maintain their firm erections. Sometimes even physicians perpetuate the idea that all this cycling won’t do any harm. The point is, not every cyclist will have erection dysfunction (ED) from cycling, just as not every smoker will get lung cancer. That doesn’t mean there’s no risk involved in either activity.

The problems that stem from typical bicycle seats are two-fold for men. There is adequate research that blood flow to the penis is blocked by the pressure of the body weight on the perineum when cycling. Look at “Bicycle Riding and Erectile Dysfunction: An Increase in Interest (and Concern)” in the Journal of Sexual Medicine 2005; 2:596-604 by Vincent Huang, Ricardo Munarriz and Irwin Goldstein. In addition, numbness due to entrapment (pressure that surrounds) of the pudendal nerve is being reported.

So, what’s a cyclist to do? Well, the researchers have been busy designing seats that decrease the pressure and decrease the likelihood of cycling-related ED. What they have begun to develop are ergonomically designed saddles that account for urogenital physiologic principles — in other words, “crotch friendly.”

Some early designs were offered. The most notable one had a circular cutout into which the penis fit and which provided some perceived relief to the male cyclist. It turns out, however, that the pressure on the perineum is inversely related to the surface area covered. This means that if there’s less of a seat holding up the entire “butt area” there’s more pressure to be distributed to the parts that actually have contact with the bike saddle. That means more pressure where you don’t want it and the possibility of more ED.

It also turns out that some researchers in Venice, Italy (see “Development of a New Geometric Bicycle Saddle for the Maintenance of Genital-Perineal Vascular Perfusion” by G. Breda, N. Piazza, V. Bernardi, E. Lunardon, and A. Caruso in the Journal of Sexual Medicine 2005; 2: 605-611) have tested a seat that distributes the weight over the buttocks area while including a center open section that does not compress the perineum. In addition, it has a “nose” that tips down (like the beak of an eagle) rather than sticking out even with the main plane of the saddle. This reduces the pressure on the penis and scrotum. The coccyx (tail bone) does not touch the seat either so makes going over rough terrain better and less stressful to that area. The only name I have for this bicycle saddle is the SMP given to it by the Italian researchers.

Perineal pressure on female genitals might very well affect blood supply and nerves. It’s reasonable to wonder if it could affect sexual response for women as well. Measurements of erections are often easier to get than measurements of lubrication (the comparable sexual experience of females). So, it may take some time for researchers to develop appropriate devices that allow this to occur for a female cyclist.

Meanwhile, women can help maintain genital health by lubricating the genital folds before cycling. Some suggest Aquaphor, Balmex, Astroglide, or Probe. This helps the labia glide with leg movements and helps prevent irritation, bleeding or chafing from long distance biking. Women with long labia should arrange them after putting on lubricant and make sure to wear bike shorts with padding. Padded underwear can be worn under bike shorts for really long or frequent rides.

So, don’t forgo your exercise if cycling is your thing. Just be sure to get up off that seat during indoor cycling classes if it’s a narrow seat with a nose. Take this article to your health club and ask them to evaluate their current seats. Look for seats that either have a sloping down (“eagle’s beak”) nose or no nose at all. If you can’t find the SMP seat, get one that distributes the body weight over a greater area and offers pliability.

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Posted by: WebMD Blogs at 3:56 pm

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