I am grateful every day that my lifestyle requires very little commuting. I live about five minutes from my office, and I put less than 10,000 miles on my car every year. In sharp contrast to my own experience, many of my patients tell me stories about their long commutes and how they feel like it translates to ill effects on their mental and physical health.
I live and work in the suburbs of Connecticut, about an hour and half drive from New York City if there is no traffic (which is never :-)). Many people who live near me work in New York City, and commute there nearly every day. I’ve had many patients with children tell me that they leave the house before the kids are even up, and often get home after they’ve gone to bed. Whether it’s by car or by train, these folks routinely spend 3-4 hours per day in a vehicle.
It should come as no surprise that many of these commuter patients come to my office in pain. This pain can oftentimes be attributed to the abnormal, hunched posture of sitting in cars, arms tensed over the wheel. Commuters tend to have pain in the neck and upper back… but low back pain and sciatica are the most common.
Interestingly, this pain is often asymmetrical. When you drive a car, it’s the right side of your body that gets all the action. You use your right leg to work the gas and the brake pedals, and your right arm to shift (if you still do that) and to work the turn signals and all of the controls on the console. Considering that commuters are driving for hours a day, it should come as no surprise that the right side of their body gets an asymmetric amount of activity.
I’ve been well aware of the orthopedic dangers of commuting for many years, but recently my attention was piqued by an article outlining another dangerous downside of sitting in traffic. Researchers found high levels of road toxins, including car exhaust and other fumes, inside the vehicles in heavy traffic conditions. This type of pollution is a significant source of toxicity for those who spend lots of time in the car. The research was published in the journal Atmospheric Environment, and it points to exposure to “ambient particulate matter” as the eighth leading cause of death in the United States every year.
The 2015 study states that sitting in traffic, or even being stuck at a traffic light, exposes individuals to 29 times more detrimental pollutants than simply driving through non-congested traffic. Thankfully, the researchers also found that simply adjusting the ventilation system of your vehicle could help a lot, and decrease exposure to fumes by as much as 76 percent.
According to the study’s senior author, Dr. Prashant Kumar:
“Where possible and with weather conditions allowing, it is one of the best ways to limit your exposure by keeping windows shut, fans turned off and to try and increase the distance between you and the car in front while in traffic jams or stationary at traffic lights. If the fan or heater needs to be on, the best setting would be to have the air re-circulating within the car without drawing in air from outdoors. Of course improving the efficiency of filtering systems of vehicles in future could further benefit to curtail the on-road exposure in such situations.”
Additionally, setting your car fan to recirculate the air in your car, rather than draw in fresh air from outside, could help decrease your exposure to pollen during allergy season, as well as to those nasty pollutants.
Driving through congested traffic is an unfortunate reality for many people. If you do need to make this commute, make sure you take the above-mentioned steps to make your car as toxicity-free as possible. Also, make sure that you move around as much as you can when you’re not in the car, to help balance out all of that sitting!
– Dr. Joshua Levitt