Sun’s Out, Bikes Out. Here’s How to Prevent Common Bike-related Injuries This Summer

A man in a red shirt standing next to a white bike.

Every Pacific Northwesterner knows: When the sun comes out, so do the bikes.

And while cycling is a great low impact way to improve cardiovascular fitness, strengthen your lower body, and reduce your carbon footprint, there are some cons to trading four wheels for two—namely, risk of pain and injury.

So, to kick off the PNW’s prime biking season, we’re talking bicycling safety tips. Read on to discover the most common bike-related pains and injuries, and what you can do to prevent them.

KNEE PAIN

“Take up cycling,” they said. “It won’t hurt your knees,” they said. While it’s true that biking is a low-impact form of exercise, it doesn’t always alleviate knee pain—in fact, roughly a quarter of professional cyclists suffer from knee injuries. One of the most common complaints among bikers is anterior knee pain, or pain in and around the kneecap. Cyclists can get it from muscle tightness, overuse, or a poorly-adjusted bike.

An x-ray of a knee.
x-ray OA knee x-ray

HOW TO PREVENT IT:

First, check your bike fit against an online calculator. You want to make sure your bike is adjusted to your measurements, but also to the type of riding that you do. Areas to pay extra-close attention to are seat height, seat position, and the rotation and position of your cleats.  

Next, make sure you’re stretching—something cyclists often overlook. Try getting on a foam roller and gently rolling the quads, the inside of the thigh, hamstrings, and calves. Pro tip: When rolling, use long, continuous motions to add some length to your muscles—don’t go quickly up and down like a rolling pin.

ELBOW FRACTURE

During June and July, our Zoom providers see twice as many bike accidents as other months. As we previously reported, the most common injury isn’t a broken wrist or a broken collarbone, either—believe it or not, it’s the elbow. (More specifically, the radial head and radial neck.)

Why the elbow and not the wrist, you ask? When you fall and catch yourself with your hands, the impact of hitting the ground travels up your forearm, where it hits a fixed point at the elbow—which can cause the head or neck of the radius bone to fracture, or sometimes fragment.  

An x-ray showing a radial head fracture, a common bike-related injury

HOW TO PREVENT IT:

This is a tricky one. Outside of, well…not crashing your bike, there isn’t much you can do in the way of prevention. “Extending one or both arms to break a fall is something we do instinctively to protect our heads, which is good,” says ZOOM+Care’s Orthopedic Surgeon Carolyn Yang. “If you can think to do one thing as you go down, bend your elbows, which will reduce the impact on the joint.”

If you do suffer a break, be sure to visit ZOOM+Super—our Emergency Care Clinic in Portland. Super can treat 80% of the reasons adults and kids go to the ER, including breaks and bone fractures.

CHAFING/SADDLE SORES

Hours spent sitting on an uncomfortable seat + sweating in tight clothing = chafing. And while saddle sores aren’t the sexiest summertime biking injury, they’re certainly a common one.

If chafing does pop up this summer, be sure to wash daily with a fragrance-free soap, then gently pat—never rub—dry. After cleaning the area, apply an ointment like petroleum jelly to reduce friction.

One note: If the area becomes swollen, beefy red, hot, painful, crusted, or starts bleeding, be sure to schedule an appointment with a healthcare provider, who can recommend a medicated ointment.

HOW TO PREVENT IT:

If you start to develop chafing and saddle sores, take time off the bike. Seriously—constantly re-exposing the area isn’t going to help you heal.

Other preventive measures include wearing loose, breathable clothing, making sure your seat is adjusted to the proper height and angle, wearing padded shorts, and switching to a seat with better cushioning.

TRAIN TRACK-RELATED INJURIES

Ask any urban cyclist—biking downtown is akin navigating to a war zone. There are the usual dangers (read: cars, buses, streetcars), but there’s another, less-obvious foe lurking: train tracks. The gaps between the rails and pavement can easily swallow a bicycle wheel, and slick tracks can make your tires slip out from under you.

“This time of year, people are out riding their bikes all the time—and railroad tracks can be super dangerous, even for experienced riders. Every summer, we see a trend of people breaking bones because they get caught in those grooves,” says hardcore cyclist Dr. Mark Zeitzer. (He also happens to be our Medical Director of Acute Care Services.)

A person on a bike riding next to the train tracks.

HOW TO PREVENT THEM

First things first: When you come a railroad crossing, slow down and make sure there is no train coming. Once it’s safe to cross, attack them from a perpendicular angle—cross at 90 degrees to the way they run, or as close as you can to that. Be sure to look out for perpendicular gaps, as well.

BACK PAIN

Is it any wonder that biking—an activity which requires you to maintain an unnatural, hunched over, position—causes back pain? While nagging back pain should be addressed by chiropractor or and or medical massage specialist, there are a few changes you can make to prevent it during the heavy riding months.

HOW TO PREVENT IT:

Similarly to knee pain, many cyclists experience back pain due to a poor bike fit. Make sure your seat is the right height and position—one that’s too low or too high can aggravate your lower back. Likewise, adjust your bike to fit your exact height and build. That way, your spine rests in a neutral—not a rounded—position.

Finally, try some core strengthening exercises like planks, leg lifts, and lunges. By strengthening your core, you’ll rely less on your lower back for power, making it easier to handle the forward position on your bike.

If you’re still experiencing chronic muscle pain in your knees or back, it might be time see an Orthopedist. The best part? You don’t need a referral—simply schedule a visit at one of our three Portland clinics.