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Riding with arthritis and other chronic pain

Riding with arthritis and chronic pain

Riders like to think of themselves as tough and will ride through pain, heat, cold, rain and other adversities to do what they love – riding!

But chronic pain such as arthritis is sidelining more and more riders as the average age of riders continues to grow each year.

In recent years I’ve been sidelined on occasions by injuries and various aches and pains from my advancing years.

However, a recent knee replacement and subsequent sciatic nerve issues made me realise just how unprepared I was for chronic pain and how it would interrupt what I love doing.

Most times we just ride through it, or take more frequent breaks to stretch or massage aching body parts.

However, there is more that can be done and we asked the Ulysses Club for mature-aged riders to supply some ideas.

After all, they have long been supporters of and fundraisers for research into rheumatoid arthritis of all types.

National Coordinator for the Ulysses Club Arthritis Research Fund (UCARF) and past National President Kim Kennerson eagerly replied with the following list of tips that not only apply to rheumatoid arthritis but many other chronic pain issues.

Ulysses tips to avoid pain while riding

  • Always test-ride a motorcycle for comfort. Seat design and height, handle bar design and height, sitting position and ease of mounting and dismounting are all important considerations.
    Riding with arthritis and chronic pain
    Consider handelbar height
  • Riding posture – Three basic postures include Standard, Sport and Cruiser. Standard – back is straight and the neck is in a neutral position. Shoulders and elbow are comfortable on the grips. Sport – the body is leaning forward and can cause trauma. The feet are behind the knees and the head is extended. Less comfort. Cruiser – slightly reclined position. Feet are usually forward of the knee, the head is upright and the hips and pelvis are relaxed. This posture is comfortable.
  • Cruise control – allows the rider to rest/reposition one hand at a time.
  • Handle grip palm rests – allows the rider to rest the hands in more comfort.
  • Softer foam handle-grips replacement – relaxed throttle grip with less pressure on the fingers.
    Soft Grip for chronic pain
    Soft grips (Photo courtesy Gary Warner, Ulysses Club Riding On editor)
  • Minimise weight on the upper body – e.g. riding with a backpack.
  • Motorcycle backrests – supports the back, provides more comfort and less fatigue.   
  • Highway pegs – allows the rider, particularly those with knee arthritis, to reposition and rest the legs. 
  • Motorcycle fairing – non fairing causes the rider to lean forward at higher speeds due to increased air pressure to maintain grip on the controls, this in turn causes fatigue.
  • Frequent breaks – avoid fatigue.

Quality shock-absorbing suspension.

Touratech suspension Extreme pain
Upgrade your suspension
  • Maintain prescribed anti-inflammatory medication.
  • Physical activity – stretching, aerobic and strengthening exercises are recommended.
  • Recommended arthritis diet plan.

Some great tips there, but we can see a few issues some may disagree with:

  • Cruisers may seem the most comfortable, but those with lower back pain may find the short-stroke rear suspension sends shocks straight up their spine. It also puts all your weight directly on your tailbone. Highway pegs accentuate that pressure. Some may also consider them dangerous as your feet are away from the controls.
    Pain highway pegs arthritis
    Concern over highway pegs
  • We’ve tried throttle palm rests and find they get in the way. Only use them for long-haul rides. The same goes for mechanical throttle locks. Electronic cruise control is the best option.
  • Backrests can provide good support, but a physiotherapist rider told me they can also detrimentally affect your posture if you don’t sit in them properly.
  • She also says that without a backrest you develop your core muscles more by gently resisting the wind. Stronger core muscles will help ease lower back pain.
  • We also suggest a bike with a heel shifter to relieve foot and lower leg pain.

Do you agree or disagree with the above tips? We would love to hear how you are beating chronic pain such as rheumatoid arthritis. Leave your comments below.

  1. Like every aspect of life, it’s all a compromise, six of one half a dozen of the other. That being said, short travel suspension is certainly something to avoid if you have back issues.

  2. Cruiser riding position is a deal breaker. All the riders weight slams right down on the cockyx (sp). Sports touring concentrates the weight on the inner thighs and allows the top of the helmet to penetrate the wind first. I’m recovering from a major leg injury and am now up to 600km per day with frequent stops.

  3. Ginger and omega3 fish oil and cumin are some of my favourite take as much as you want anti inflammatory meditations with little or no side effects especially dangerous ones you can take as much as will do you good.
    Ginger not only helps with inflammation it also helps with vertigo and fish oil can replace many dangerous blood thinners it also helps with mental health
    Cumin is supposed to be anti inflammatory and anti cancer but it can loosen the bowels though.

  4. I’ve got Myalgic Encaphalmyelitis, which appears to be latin for painful hurty thing. I use a motorcycle as my daily transport as I can park it thereabouts where I like, often closer to my destination than designated disabled parking. I have a regular pillion with Fibromyalgia.

    A relatively light bike is much easier, particularly when dealing with traffic, parking and putting the bike away. A heavyweight tourer or big cruiser is just awkward in these situations.

    A reasonably slim bike is more comfortable. I borrowed a ’98 R1 for a while and found the way it spread my knees to the full width of the bike quite uncomfortable. Similarly large tourers with wide tanks are not particularly comfortable. Whilst bandits and katanas have a wide inline 4 engine, the knees are quite a bit closer together. There is a trend with more modern bikes to stay slim at the rear of the tank, perhaps with the tank being more mushroom shaped. This helps.

    I’ve had some lighter cruisers, notably an XV535 which was on the thin and light side. Whilst the riding position feels immediately comfortable, it’s not comfortable at speed, the short travel suspension and straight back position means the jolt from any bump goes straight up, and is awkward at higher speeds as there’s loads of wind pressure. A decent screen (MRA vario or other vented and adjustable one works best) was helpful, but I couldn’t manage more than 100 miles a day.

    Slightly forward leaning with the pegs directly down helps massively with distance, I find i rock rather than jolt with bumps. Modern rising-rate monoshock rear suspension makes for a much smoother ride than older twinshocks. I was surprised at how smooth and soft the R1 was over bumps. I found a VFR800 just in the wrong place of leaning forward enough to put pressure on my wrists, but not as much as the R1, which if narrower would have been remarkably comfortable. The bars could have probably been adjusted to comfortable quite easily though. Incredibly smooth ride though.

    What I’m actually riding now is a Bandit 600, It’s got a fairing upper that keeps the rain and wind off quite well whilst being relatively free from turbulance. It’s physically big enough to not feel cramped (I’m 6’0″) without being excessively wide or heavy. I can stand on the footpegs to adjust my position or to get my ass off the seat over really big bumps, but the ride is quite soft. I might fit an uprated monoshock at some point, but that would be in search of less vagueness of handling. It’s a very forgiving bike stock and way ahead of any cruiser in ride quality and handling. I have managed 400 miles or so in a day, which was a big improvement over the old 535.

    One thing that is overlooked in terms of comfort is control feel. The 535 had a very heavy clutch and the brakes would stop the bike or lock wheels, but the pedal needed standing on for the drum to work well and the front brake needed a good hard 4-finger squeeze. Additionally the gearbox was quite agricultural and would not make smooth clutchless upshifts. The bandit, like most almost modern bikes with a pretence of sportiness, has a very smooth close ratio gearbox, so clutchless shifts are very smooth and if I’m riding hard, will go shift down clutchless as well. The clutch and front brake lever pulls are less than a typical cruiser, but still need a firmer squeeze than a more modern or more sporty bike.

    Slip-assist and lockup clutch designs are very easy and found on more modern and sporty bikes. If i had a bigger budget i’d be looking at bikes that did this.

    If your pillion has similar issues things get more complicated. The 535 was so low it was very easy for a pillion to mount. The bandit has a fairly wide rear end and my pillion finds it very hard to get on and off if we have the big luggage on. it’s quite spacious and roomy and the seat is more than a dirty joke.

    Engine character is another factor if the pain is fatigue related. I found torquey twins quite tiring (but loads of fun) to ride as there’s a very immediate hard surge of acceleration available at low rpm. My i4 600 is very smooth and doesn’t throw me around much. It caught my pillion out when the bike was new to us as she’d relax once the bike got to 60mph or so, not realising that there was plenty left for an overtake and the bike was ready to come alive at 8000rpm as opposed to it being show-over.

    Good gear also helps. Supportive and easy to get out of boots are better than fashion/sports items. I quite like the Altberg high-leg styles, notably these are easy to walk in off the bike unlike sportier items. Close fitting and aerodynamically smooth jacket and jeans works better than many-pocketed adventure style kit or baggy unarmoured jeans. Goretex kit in a wet climate is a must, and I’m using kit with mesh panels in non-impact areas for temperature control in what passes for the english summer. Bar-muffs and heated grips when it’s really cold. I’m avoiding heated kit ans it’s more stuff to put on and take off. As such I’m torn between integrated armour as easier to put on and separate armour as lighter items. My winter jacket is currently packed with elbow, shoulder and back inserts but is far too heavy off the bike.

  5. 6 weeks after a knee replacement and finding the
    valkyrie is ok but the st1100 footpeg position is painful
    and difficult to reach the brake. didnt think there would be so much difference.

  6. Everyone is a bit different, after having a dodgy lower back most of my adult life, I have learnt how to look after it, mostly.
    My main long distance bike is a 2007 R1200gsa , I think is comfortable.
    As commented , posture is important, I sit up straight and make the muscles work, core strength!
    I drive trucks , tractors etc. and use the same technique, I don’t use the back rest much , I have it reclined so only supports my lower back. Can have some sore muscles when I haven’t done it for a while, but you get over that.
    You’ve got to try different things, to work it out.

  7. Just got off the harley, bought a v storm 650. perfect bike for anyone with back issues.magic ride.try one,the 650 is the best of the two produced 1000cc not so good

  8. I’ve had several major spine surgeries, failed ones at that, both lumbar and cervical (lumber was the worst though). I also have psoriatic arthritis, degenerative disc disease, diabetes with severe neuropathy and half a dozen other conditions. Just over a year ago I was virtually bedridden and when i wasn’t then I was being pushed around in a wheelchair. Suffice to say, with these conditions, i never thought I’d be able to ride.
    It took alot of hard work but I got strong enough to get out on 2. However, the pain, especially the low back and arthritic pain can still be severe at times. Here’s a few things that help me:
    -Pre-ride streching and warm-up. Super important because if I’m already hurting or tight in an area, it’ll definitely get worse. I’d recommend learning some type of self massage techniques as well to help loosen up your particular trouble spots.
    -ride a bike that fits you. For me, i decided to get a smaller size bike. Less power and torque felt more comfortable for me. I personally got a low slung cruiser. It works for me and thats what matters.
    -invest in your ride. Stock probably wont cut it. This is probably the part that helps me the most.
    For my low back issues, i got an upgraded saddle (most comfortable thing ever), uprated suspension and i also put some highway bars on. In the event of a low speed lay down, they make it possible for me to pick it up myself. (The lighter bike helps too)
    For my arthritis, so far the only mods I’ve found that help (apart from the suspension as well) are some Isolation grips.
    -gear up, dress up. I’m not as young as I used to be. The weather bothers me more than it used to. Especially the cold with the arthritis. I layer up and wear thermals. With the diabetes and poor foot circulation (and a history of foot wounds) i have to be really careful with my feet, especially since i have little feeling.
    -Be proud. The fact that you are riding through this instead of letting it get the best of you is something to be proud of. Enjoy that and ride on.
    Anyway, this is just a few of the things that helped me along. Have fun out there and keep the shiny side up. Much L&R.

  9. Well well, interesting observations on this very serious matter. My two cents worth: major back surgery twice, constantly in pain,at times crippled by it literally! Sold my kickstart bevel cauz of the pain in starting it. still manage to ride an electric start duke with handlebars down near the front axle and a 5mm thick seat with rear sets . I’m 56 and a physical wreck from a lifetime of riding and Ill health…….
    get around on a tenere as a daily rider but seriously without a regular thrash on the hotrod and the associated pain I think I’d have ended things ( seriously) I’m just suggesting here that life without your dream bike is not a life haha.
    To anybody who is dealing with major pain and illness just keep riding if you can,for as long as you can, as hard as you can. I have given up horse riding, enduring riding and many other things…….but motorcycles still make me smile like nothing else!

  10. I live in the UK and have found the various comments on riding with arthritis very interesting. I am 66 with arthritis mainly in my hands and ride a Suzuki GSXR 1000 K6 that I’ve had from new…….I love it and have always found it comfortable for a sportsbike. I bought a Transalp a few years ago but found it surprisingly uncomfortable compared to the Gixer…..high seat height and with an upright riding position that gave me backache, so I sold it. My main problem is arthritic fingers in particular when gripping the Clipstone a longish ride, one finger in particular will not grip the bar and therefore is very painful after a while. I’ve helped it a lot by fitting “Grip Puppies” which increase the diameter of the grips with a sponge feel, can really recommend. Also riding by not gripping the bars too tightly also helps. I hope this has been of interest, I realise that sportsbikes are not supposed to be at all comfortable but mine is pretty good. Like most people the thought of not being able to ride scares me, but if you want something enough………….Tim

    1. Hi all, also from the UK, have been biking for 50yrs off & on. Diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis 8 yrs ago after suffering in silence for some time. bits of me that get affected are hands wrists elbows hips knees feet, apart from that I`m bloody good health. Fortunately, the specialist gives me some pointy things to stick in my body once a week, to sort of control things, life is so much better.
      I recently returned to biking in the form of a maxi scooter, I wouldn’t have entertained it ten years ago but I have to say I wish I had more sense then. Ankles are for walking not moving chunks of steel around or pressing on levers, and hands should be used to gently countersteer and guide, maybe the odd frenzied nonverbal communication. The only annoying or just plain painful thing for me is the throttle, it’s about time these young inventer chappies came up with a psyco kinetic digital thingamajig, any who, have ordered a throttle stop which should sort that out. Slightly more seriously, I believe the fear of losing such an important form of rehabilitation helps drive through the fatigue and pain and the rewards are difficult to quantify.

  11. My issue is my neck ,I’m looking for an aerodynamic ultra light full face helmet and something to support my neck but everything online is just a A sales pitch . does anyone have experience with this?

  12. Knee arthritis here. My biggest concern is stop-and-go traffic. A little is manageable, but I got caught on I95 a couple of times with 1-3 hours of stop-and-go traffic. At the time it was manageable, but the next day I couldn’t walk. I’m actually nervous about getting back on the bike, but my plan is to time my arrival departure to avoid traffic as much as possible. And if I get caught in traffic again, I’m just going to pull over and give up for the day or have a meal break.

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