Commuting has become a regular part of our lives nowadays. It is not uncommon for people to drive an hour or more, to and from work each day. And we get it – we want the nice house with the yard, and we don’t want to pay soul crushing, big city housing prices…but we still have to work, and in many cases, that necessitates a long drive, twice a day.
We don’t think it’s any secret that regular longer driving times can have both a physical and a mental impact on our bodies. These effects can occur slowly over months and years, so they may not be readily noticed by the commuter. But the effects are real , and over the passage of time, are not easily corrected.
A study done in Brazil found the prevalence of low back pain in truck drivers to be as high a 59% and the only factor that correlated with the presence of low back pain was the number of working hours behind the wheel. In my practice, I have noted most people that travel greater than 40 mins daily, complain of neck and low back pain in varying levels of intensity.
So, what is it about driving that makes our body so vulnerable to pain and dysfunction? It is commonly said that “sitting” is the new smoking. I would modify this slightly to say that “not moving” is the new smoking. Maintaining static postures for prolonged periods of time, loads the body with significant forces that stress the joints as well as the active and passive structures that hold your body up. Our bodies are resilient and we can get away with this for a while – but it’s tiring. As such, with extended driving, we tend to sag into our seat, causing the pelvis to roll back, reversing our normal lumbar curve. The hamstrings can become tight, and hip flexors shorten. We also tend to round our shoulders forward and hold our head significantly in front of our body. This position puts a lot of stress on the spine and shoulders, along with the major players (such as the muscles who are tasked with the job of holding our head upright). If we add the vibrations and various jolts that can come with driving, we have a good recipe for mechanical pain, disc herniation or early degeneration of the spine.
Eventually, some of the physical signs of body stress to commuting begin to arrive. This could present as stiffness/achiness in the neck while trying to check blind spots, or while reversing the vehicle. It could be low back ache or shoulder ache, particularly noticed while getting out of the car or possibly later in the day. Leg pain and stiffness, headaches, higher blood sugar or cholesterol levels, and decreased cardiovascular fitness (tiring easier) are all possible symptoms.
Fortunately, there’s some ways to combat and pre-emptively strike against these forces that plague the commuter.
Here are a few tips that could help you:
Use a lumbar support – and use it correctly. If you sit with your low back and pelvis positioned right to the back of the chair (and lumbar support), you will be helping to prevent the spine from “sagging” or rounding. Maintaining your normal spinal curvature over the course of the drive is key.
Do not have your seat too far back from the steering wheel. Ensure that your thighs are supported on the seat and your elbows are slightly bent when holding the steering wheel. This stops you from leaning too forward.
Avoid tensing your neck and shoulders when driving. Easier said than done? Try slowing your breathing down, with deeper breaths, and consciously dropping your shoulders upon exhalation. Yes, amazingly enough, we can “tell” our muscles to relax. But it takes some practice. This is a worthwhile exercise to incorporate throughout your day, particularly in times of stress or prolonged static postures. Note that unnecessary tension over longer periods of time cause the neck muscles to STAY in a state of constant contraction, causing active trigger (tender) points, possibly leading to neck and upper back pain, as well as headaches.
Keep shifting/adjusting your position when on long drives. Even small position changes in the seat can allow different muscles to help out, distributing the stress to different areas of the spine. Small shoulder rolls - emphasizing backwards and downwards motion of the spine – are useful. If this is too distracting for you, consider doing a few of these when stopped at a red light. Likewise, arching and then reverse-arching your back, with repetition, helps minimize that “static posture” situation.
Squeeze and relax - after spending about 30 mins behind the wheel, squeeze and then relax your buttocks and leg muscles. Try this for 5 to 10 repetitions. This helps improve blood flow to the lower limbs. Continue to do this every 10-15 minutes thereafter.
Go on cruise control whenever possible. This can lessen the stress on the low back, groin and calf muscles by allowing the leg some relaxation and positional change.
Stretch and mobilize! Have a daily stretching and mobilizing routine. Obviously, the entire body can benefit from a regular routine of this nature, but pay particular attention to the areas of your body most negatively affected by your commuting. This likely includes your low back, neck, shoulders, and lower extremities. Again, this can go a long way towards staying clear of chronically tight and weak areas of the body.
If you have any further questions about any of this subject matter, please do not hesitate to contact AJ at: email@example.com.
AJ is a physiotherapist at Kawartha Therapeutic Centre, who treats a wide variety of musculo-skeletal injuries including sports injuries, post-surgical, workplace and car accident injuries, chronic and acute conditions.