How does cycling impact women's sexual health?

Manon Lloyd speaks to a consultant gynaecologist to learn why women experience numbness and pain and how to prevent it

Clock21:08, Friday 17th May 2024

Numbness, soreness and swelling in the crotch and saddle area are factors that affect most cyclists. In this article and video, we’re going to focus on the specific issues that women experience and look at ways to help reduce it and lessen the impact it can have when cycling.

Cycling is a pastime that shouldn’t be uncomfortable for anyone. As a woman, you shouldn’t be in pain or have a sore or numb vagina when riding a bike. It's something that many women persevere with, riding through the pain, while for others it puts them off continuing to cycle altogether.

So Manon Lloyd has been over to the Southmead Hospital in Bristol, in the UK, to speak to Dr Jess Preshaw, a consultant gynaecologist and occasional cyclist to find out more about the main causes of this discomfort and what steps can be taken to help prevent it.

Read more: How to avoid getting a numb penis while cycling

What causes numbness and pain while cycling?

The main problem area for women is the vulva and the perineum, as these are both in direct contact with the saddle and so have a lot of pressure put through them.

Blood supply to those areas can become restricted, and the drainage of lymph can also be hampered, which can result in some swelling. This is also where the pudendal nerve is located – an area that can feel painful or become numb when continual pressure is applied.

Dr Preshaw explains: "The vulval skin is really delicate and very sensitive so it’s prone to trauma. And when you're cycling there is friction, there's heat, there's moisture, there's sweat. And that again can traumatise the area and change the balance of bacteria in the vulval skin and potentially increase the risk of getting an infection."

This is why, Dr Preshaw tells us, it’s really important to change out of cycling kit soon after your ride. You should wash yourself and your clothing to avoid the build up of harmful bacteria that can further irritate the skin.

Read more: How to wash your cycling kit

How can irritation between reduced?

Much in the same you way you might have a skincare regime for the face, Dr Preshaw recommends adopting a similar approach for the vulval skin, which is just as sensitive.

“Adopt an emollient, which is a medical moisturiser and comes in different consistencies as ointments or creams," she says.

"Use it as a soap substitute and apply liberally to the skin so that area stays moisturised throughout the day. It’s soothing and protective and creates a barrier, so is a good idea to apply before a ride to help protect the vulval skin.”

Causes and prevention of vaginal swelling

This can be more common in people with an asymmetric gait but is something the many female cyclists experience. Dr Preshaw tells us that the main reason is that, "There are two little glands at the base of the vagina, which secret mucus to help keep it moist. If they are irritated it might lead to a blockage in those glands and that means that you can get a swelling in that area. If that then becomes infected it could cause and abscess or cyst."

You can mitigate this by getting a proper bike fit. Carefully consider the type of saddle you go for. A wider fit can help increase comfort and take the pressure off those sensitive areas. Also consider raising your handlebars up in relation to the saddle. This will help relieve some of the pressure off the vulva and perineum.

If you continue to experience pain or swelling then try to have short break to give your body some rest from pressure. Even trying to ride out of the saddle a little can help ease discomfort. However, if you're experiencing more persistent symptoms like itching, soreness, bleeding or develop a swelling in that area, you should make an appointment to see a GP.

One final, really important point. We hope that by making this video and article, that it helps talk about this subject more. You should never be too embarrassed to talk about the pain, discomfort and symptoms covered here. No one should be uncomfortable riding and there's usually a way to solve the issue so you can enjoy your your time on the bike more.

What type of saddle do you use? Have you ever experienced numbness, and could you fix it? Let us know in the comments below.

For more health and fitness articles head over to our dedicated fitness section on the GCN website.

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