Can Cycling Reduce Pain?

If you have ever been through physical therapy for any below the waist injuries, then my guess is that you probably spent part of that time exercising on a stationary bike. Cycling seems to be a basic component of many rehabilitation and reconditioning programs. I remember using the stationary bike at physical therapy after recovering from my ACL reconstruction of my right knee. At first, my knee was so swollen that I could only rock my foot back and forth on the pedal, but it was a big milestone for me when I could make a full circle of the pedal with my right leg. Later, I found running to still be painful but had no pain cycling at spin classes, so that prompted me to get a road bike for outdoor recreation.

While cycling on a stationary bike seems to be a mainstay of physical rehabilitation after injury or surgery, this raises the question of whether cycling is also good for long-term pain management? I think there are compelling reasons why the answer is yes. Let’s take a look at where cycling can be used as a pain management tool:

  • Osteoarthritis: More and more research seems to show that exercise, as opposed to rest, can improve pain from arthritis. Cycling seems to be an ideal low-impact choice for exercising the hips and knees.
  • Low back pain: Studies show that sedentary low back sufferers report significant reductions in back pain after going on a monitored cycling conditioning program for several weeks.
  • Knees and hips: Some research has shown that exercise actually stimulates cartilage growth, making it a potential treatment tool for cartilage damage. While higher impact forms of exercise, like running, have the potential for further degrading torn cartilage, lower impact activities like cycling seem to offer an advantage here.
  • Weight-loss: Even losing 10 pounds can reduce a lot of extra stress on painful joints. If you feel relatively comfortable when cycling, then consider using it as a weight-loss/joint pain reduction tool.
  • Vitamin-D: Vitamin-D deficiency has been associated with musculoskeletal pain. Cycling outdoors, especially in the middle of the day, can boost Vitamin-D levels.
  • Injury Prevention: Falls are a significant cause of injury in the elderly. Riding a bicycle can help preserve or prevent a decline in balance. Cycling also strengthens the muscles around the hips and thighs, and difficulty getting up out of a chair or walking is often a problem with advanced age that leads to immobility.

Here are some drawbacks of cycling to keep in mind:

  • Injury: Falls with outdoor riding happen, but researchers believe that the health benefits far outweigh the risks of injury or exposure to pollution.
  • Osteoporosis: Research suggests that relying solely on low-impact exercise may increase your risk of developing osteoporosis, so you may want to consider diversifying your routine to include weight-bearing exercise and not depend only on cycling for all of your exercise.
  • Spine: In some cases, prolonged cycling leads to symptoms of neck or back pain. My opinion is that the body was not made to be in a fixed position too long, so anytime that happens we run the risk of developing pain associated with that. Proper alignment of your body in the bike can help maintain comfort while riding or cycling.
  • Erectile Dysfunction: The pressure of the pelvis on the seat for a prolonged period of time can potentially wear out nerves involved with erectile function. Fellas, lift your bum up off the seat every so often when riding to make sure everything else lifts when you want it to.

If you are looking for ways to help better manage your pain, consider cycling as a potential part of your plan, and remember to always first consult with your doctor prior to starting a new exercise program.


Bridget's picture

I haven't ridden a bike in years! Well, I guess I have ridden a stationary bike for exercise, but not one that I had to balance. Last time I did was a few years back, but prior to that it had been probably a decade. I can attest -- I was able to ride even though it had been what felt like forever. I was a bit shaky and didn't really want to go too fast too soon, but it was fun! Maybe I should consider starting up again . . . hmmm.
Alexis's picture

I keep telling myself I need to exercise more . . . and this is something I can take the kids along, so why not?!
sgrier's picture

I to wanted to start bikeing again, after many years with chronic pain, back and balance issues, I could not ride a traditional bike. I found what is called a Trike, it is a three wheeled unit that is so much fun, I could not believe it. It is fast, and handles like a sports car. I could go on and on. If you are interested Google "Utah Trikes" and take a look, good stuff.