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Take Care of Your Vertebrae, and They’ll Take Care of You

Added April 2, 2020
Someone riding a red  motorcycle

We love to ride. We live to ride. We know how it feels when the challenges of the world melt away under the rumbling peace of long rides down two-lane blacktops. At times, it feels like we can ride through a dozen sunsets and sunrises without stopping.

For some of us, however, our spirit of adventure is far more indomitable than our bodies will allow. We lie in bed at night dreaming of our next great ride, and in our fantasy we are supple and lithe, because in our mind we always default to the very best version of ourselves. And then morning comes. With a Herculean effort, we hoist ourselves out of bed and lament the passing of the guy who made last night’s fantasies look easy.

Many of us have never had back problems, and we want to keep it that way. We have to
take care of our bodies so they can continue to serve us for years to come. Riding for long periods of time, unfortunately, can take its toll on our lower back. Many of us know what that feels like, and many of us know how lower back pain and stiffness can dampen the exhilaration of a great ride.

It’s not that riding a motorcycle is to blame. The culprit is stress, which, in this case, is defined as anything that your body has lost the ability to adapt to, like sitting for long periods. In the same way that our backs have succumbed to the ravages of time by sitting at desk jobs, lifting improperly, poor posture, lack of exercise, and other bad
habits, sitting on a motorcycle for a length of time can contribute to back pain, usually mild, but sometimes frustratingly severe.

  • Back pain is a problem that is prevalent in the modern world. In the U.S. alone, there are an estimated 31 million people with lower back pain at any given time. As many as 50 percent of all Americans report some type of back pain every year.
  • In addition to the physical aspects of back pain, the financial strain is also severe: More than $50 billion is spent every year to try to alleviate back pain.
  • Many experts place the likelihood of any person experiencing some type of back problem throughout their lifetime at about 80 percent.
  • Recently, the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey showed that 13,707,000 people visited their doctors to deal with a case of back pain in a one-year period.
  • Surveys have shown that back pain is the most common reason why people younger than age 45 don’t participate in as many activities as they would like.

It doesn’t serve us to pretend that we’re invincible and immune, especially when the steps necessary to prevent back pain are so accessible and easy – and can actually make a trip on our bike more enjoyable.

Background

First, let’s understand why our backs start to hurt in the first place. There are only a few causes of lower back pain and almost every one of them has practical solutions.

The spine is composed of 24 movable segments called vertebrae. In between each of these segments are discs that are composed primarily of cartilage and, if they’re in good shape, should contain a significant amount of fluid, acting like a shock absorption system. These discs serve double duty as spacers, maintaining distance between the vertebrae. As such, they provide ample room for the spinal nerves to exit the spine to do their job of innervating the organs and tissues of the body.

If any of these segments loses its mobility or position, the joints of the spine will sacrifice their ability to adapt to wear and tear, and they begin to dysfunction. Over time they’ll degenerate, leading to a condition called a “subluxation.” The degeneration that follows is known as osteoarthritis. That means that the discs will begin to wear down or bulge. The nerves will become irritated or pinched. And all of the muscles and ligaments that have worked so hard to try to maintain balance will now have to work even harder to try to prevent the whole situation from getting worse. That means tightness, spasm, and loss of flexibility. Unfortunately, the whole process tends to be self-perpetuating. The more stress on the system, the more the system breaks down, and the more we suffer for it.

Finding the Right Fit

“Fit” can have an enormous impact on your relationship with your motorcycle, potentially affecting handling, confidence, and general enjoyment. The tricky part is, when it’s right, you may never think about it. And when it’s wrong, you may not realize there’s a problem.

But it’s also important to know that motorcycles can be made to fit virtually any rider. Understanding these principles and guidelines will help you find your perfect fit.

The Symptoms

Not sure if your motorcycle fits you as well as it could? Look for these five warning signs of an improper fit.

-Overextended Reach

Reaching too far for the handlebar can affect your shoulders, neck, arms, and back. It can also make it tough to handle your bike properly in tight spaces.

-Backache

Lower back pain can result from an ill-fitting seat, foot position, handlebar, or combination of all three.

-Tired Hands

A grip diameter that doesn’t match your hand size can cause fatigue.

-Knees Too High

A cramped riding position puts unnecessary strain on your knees, hips, feet, and back.

-Tiptoes

An inability to plant your feet solidly on the ground may leave you feeling a lack of control.

The Solutions

The secrets to finding the right fit lie in four key areas: The seat, foot controls, handlebar, and suspension.

-Seat

Harley-Davidson offers a variety of seat heights and shapes to accommodate virtually any size rider. Consider these factors in choosing the one that fits you best:

  • When seated, do your hands fall naturally on the grips/hand controls?
  • Do you feel comfortable putting your feet down and supporting your bike when you stop? (See also “Suspension.”)
  • Does your back feel relaxed after hours in the saddle?

Try Before You Buy

Ask your dealer about taking a demo seat for a spin before making this important purchase decision.

-Foot Controls

Repositioning your feet on the controls can relieve muscle tension, take pressure off the tailbone, and reduce rider fatigue.

  • Consider your preferred riding position when determining which foot position is best for you.
  • Heel rests, cushioned footpegs, and floorboard inserts help reduce foot fatigue.
  • Highway pegs, positioned away from the foot controls, let you stretch out your legs on longer rides.
  • For tall riders, extended-reach foot controls and levers reposition your feet and stretch your legs to reduce the tendency for a “knees in the air” condition.

-Handlebar

How your bike’s handlebar feels and performs is affected by three main parameters:

  • Rise: The vertical distance between a handlebar’s tip and its base. Bars that are too high can increase fatigue.
  • Pull-back: The distance the handlebar tips come back toward the rider. Greater pull-back can reduce your reach to the hand grips.
  • Width: Measured from tip to tip. Bars that are too wide can turn out of reach on tight turns.

Try Before You Buy

Ask your dealer about trying different handlebar styles on an H-D™ Fit Shop bike.

-Suspension

After exploring seating options, lowering the suspension is often the second step in helping shorter riders reach the ground comfortably.

  • Rear: An H-D® Profile® Low Rear Suspension Kit can lower the motorcycle by a half-inch.
  • Front: A Profile Low Front Suspension Kit can take off another half-inch, to lower the seat a full inch in total.

Try Before You Buy

H-D Fit Shop Slammed Suspension Simulator Mats can help you feel the difference a lowered suspension makes.

The Triangle of Comfort

How a motorcycle fits the rider is determined by the “triangle of comfort,” defined by the geometry of the seat/hips, handlebar/hands, and footpegs/feet. Suspension height and sidestand accessibility can also affect the equation.

Every Harley-Davidson® motorcycle places the rider in one of five basic riding positions:

  1. Profiling
  2. Aggressive Profiling
  3. Sport
  4. Cruising
  5. Touring

These positions determine the triangle of comfort and can dramatically change how it feels to ride your motorcycle.

Don’t Just Sit There!

The good news is, with certain precautionary measures and relatively little effort performed consistently, we can begin to restore order to the system and begin to experience a significant reduction or elimination in the amount of pain and discomfort we feel. And look forward to riding pain free.

Let’s begin with the basics.

  1. Take frequent breaks on long rides. Every hour or so, stop and get off the bike, walk around and do a couple of stretches, even for just a couple of minutes. Most important is to spend a minute or two doing extension stretches, which, in essence, reverse the effects of poor riding posture. This also gives you more opportunities to take photographs and stay hydrated.
  2. Try to maintain proper riding position. We all know that few things in life are as aesthetically pleasing as a fellow Harley® motorcycle rider stretched out in the saddle with their feet up on the highway pegs and their hands on the bars out in front. I wouldn’t dare say to give up our classic pose. Instead, change it up. Try to ride for a while with your back erect and your feet on the boards. This is the least stressful position for your back. If you have a seat rest, this is where it serves you the most. It relieves your back muscles from having to do all the work. When I’m on long solo trips, I’ll pack some of my gear on the seat behind me, so I can use a sleeping bag or a pack as a backrest. The difference is extraordinary.
  3. Try to keep your wallet in your front (or jacket) pocket while you ride. If it’s in your back pocket, you’re sitting on a wedge that rotates your entire pelvis high on that side, creating imbalance the lower back muscles have to compensate for.
  4. If you have a history of lower back problems, consider wearing a lumbar belt, which simply gives your back muscles some needed assistance.
  5. Exercise consistently. If you spend 10 minutes daily doing some stretching and a few core strengtheners, you can come out way ahead. The key is to stretch the extensor muscles of the spine: the ones that bend you backward to counter the effects of slouching forward all day on the bike. Because the muscles in the front and back of the legs exert a significant influence on the pelvis and the lower back, it’s very helpful to stretch them as well.
  6. Take a walk. It’s early morning. The V-twin is still asleep, but you’re awake and the café doesn’t serve breakfast for another half hour. Go out and take that morning constitutional walk. A brisk 15- to 20-minute walk will do wonders for all aspects of your health, especially the muscles of your legs and core, which will help keep that lower back appreciative. If you’re feeling inspired, when the old girl is parked and quiet for the night, take another 15-minute ramble. Besides, what better way to scope out the local scenery than to stroll down Main Street or take in the view from the top of a hill?
  7. Probably the least popular suggestion is to lose the gut, that sub-sternal keg, that extra 10 or 30 pounds some of us are carrying around our waists. I say, ditch the keg and get a six pack. It will take a load off your back.

We ride Harley-Davidson® motorcycles for many reasons. It anchors us in a changing world; it gives us perspective; it gives us time with our friends and loved ones; it simply is who we are. We know that our time on the road is a sacred part of our existence. By riding safe and staying healthy – and taking care of our backs – we can continue to make memories and fill up photo albums for years to come.

The information in this article is presented as a service to readers of H.O.G.® magazine and does not represent any official position or medical opinions of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company.

A version of this post appeared in H.O.G.® magazine.

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