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After asking this beginner's question, I took people's advice and started test driving bicycles. I rode for about twenty minutes, so not too long. About fifteen minutes later, I found that my right thumb had developed a serious uncontrollable tremor. Whether I clenched the thumb or relaxed the thumb, it kept shaking. The left was not shaking.

I test drove two bikes (both relatively upright): one where the hand grips + brake handles fit well (though I didn't have padded gloves so that caused some pain) and the second where the brake handles were far enough from the hand grips that I could only reach them with my finger tips. I returned quickly with that bike because it hurt and I didn't feel safe being unable to control the brakes well.

I had ulnar nerve problems with that hand/wrist twenty-odd years ago, though the ulnar nerve numbness ran from my pinkie and ring fingers up to my neck and didn't involve my thumb at all.

Is the thumb tremor simply a result of bad-configuration-for-me handles? Or is it a symptom that I haven't ridden in forever? Was it the lack of proper padded gloves? All three?

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    I would expect most people to be able to ride a bike for just 15 minutes without gloves without it causing much discomfort, let alone actual pain or loss of muscle control. Something is more seriously wrong than just "no gloves". – David Richerby Nov 6 '17 at 19:18
  • The second bike could have put your thumb at a strange angle straining to reach the brakes, and an odd wrist angle on either bike could put internal or external pressure on something it shouldn't. The other possibility is that you were gripping the bars extremely hard. – Chris H Nov 6 '17 at 20:31
  • @DavidRicherby That's the reality check I was afraid of--that it wasn't normal, even with all the contributing excuses I made up. – SnappingShrimp Nov 6 '17 at 20:51
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    Excess pressure at the base of the thumb can cause local numbness/loss of coordination. And gripping too hard on a bike that doesn't fit quite right could easily cause that pressure. This can be quick but recovery should be quick too. I've been there on a mountain bike (which isn't something I normally do). – Chris H Nov 6 '17 at 21:13
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    There are several spots near the base of the thumb and continuing out into the palm which contain nerve bundles. If you placed pressure on the wrong one of these (basically leaning too hard on the bar, with your hand in an "unlucky" position) you often won't feel pain immediately, but it can upset the nerve later, causing numbness or tremor. The good news is that the effect is short-lived, and generally clears up in a few days, if not a few hours. And an experienced cyclist learns to change hand positions frequently (though being tired can interfere with this). – Daniel R Hicks Nov 6 '17 at 22:32
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The lack of padding on your gloves is unlikely to have been the problem in such a short ride. The lack of grip in adverse weather conditions is more likely to cause it. You mentioned that you were holding the bars very tight. With typical stock handlebar grips it's perfectly possible to apply a lot of pressure on the nerves at the base of your thumb, and this can cause numbness and loss of control.

The good news is it should get better fast. When I've had this issue (often sweaty hands and unexpectedly rough terrain) it's faded within a couple of hours. Others report it taking a bit longer.

There are several things you can do:

  • In warm/dry conditions bare hands have decent grip.
  • Bike gloves don't have to be expensive. My good gloves were under £/€/$10 on eBay.
  • Even minor changes to your hand position can relieve the pressure.
  • Riding one handed allows you to flex and relieve the other hand. It might seem unrealistic when you've just started riding but it's a useful skill, essential in traffic for signalling where you're going. Practicing riding with one hand while the other hovers near the bars is a good start and will help your hand.
  • Ergonomic grips spread the pressure, and provide more hand positions on flat bars. I've used the Ergon GP2 and GP3 with bar-ends on my hybrid, and they're good for riding all day.
  • Adjusting the bike to fit (especially so you're not using your hands to stop yourself sliding forwards all the time) will also help. This is something you can do yourself or with the help of a friend, but you'll need some longer rides to test it.

Finally if it doesn't get better within a day or so this time, or keeps coming back, you may need to get it checked out

  • Thanks for the link to the grips, those make total sense, as does the advice about learning to ride one-handed. I will be sure to have seat, handle bars, and brake handles fitted by a professional. – SnappingShrimp Nov 9 '17 at 17:06

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