Your Car + Your Commute = A Visit to Your Doctor

Caryn Hutson picks up her 14-month-old son Riley on her way home to Haymarket from the District. Hutson lives in her dream home, but the 80-mile round-trip commute can be a nightmare and has cut into her workout time.
Caryn Hutson picks up her 14-month-old son Riley on her way home to Haymarket from the District. Hutson lives in her dream home, but the 80-mile round-trip commute can be a nightmare and has cut into her workout time. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)

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By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 9, 2007

For seven years, Gail Ennis has been spending up to three hours a day behind the wheel of her Subaru, commuting between her law office in Washington and her home on Gibson Island in Anne Arundel County. What she's gotten out of the 100-mile daily round trip is sciatica -- a shooting pain down one leg -- and a lack of time for exercise.

"It's just too much and getting worse every year," Ennis said.

Besides being a daily grind that takes time away from family, a long commute can be harmful to your health. Researchers have found that hours spent behind the wheel raise blood pressure and cause workers to get sick and stay home more often. Commuters have lower thresholds for frustration at work, suffer more headaches and chest pains, and more often display negative moods at home in the evenings.

It's not just the drivers who suffer. Carpool passengers have to deal with what they call "Mustang neck" or "Beetle neck" -- the contortions they must make to wedge themselves into the back seats of certain cars.

Such ailments have long plagued drivers in California and other parts of the country where grueling commutes have been a way of life for decades. But Washington commuters, who are increasingly making the long hauls that cause the most problems, are catching up fast, researchers said. The region's drivers have the nation's second-longest commutes, behind New York, according to Census Bureau figures, and in outer suburbs, drives are as much as an hour each way on a good day -- and there aren't many good days.

As a consequence, more drivers will probably suffer the health effects of a commuter lifestyle, researchers and doctors said. "You tell someone they need to exercise or go to physical therapy, but how can they? They leave at 5 a.m. and get home at 7 or 8 p.m. at night," said Robert G. Squillante, an orthopedic surgeon in Fredericksburg who has treated patients for back pain and other commuting-related issues.

He said constant road vibrations and sitting in the same position for a long time is bad for the neck and spine and puts special pressure on the bottom disc in the lower back, the one most likely to deteriorate over the years.

There are other long-term concerns. Raymond W. Novaco, a professor at the University of California at Irvine's Institute of Transportation Studies who has researched commuting for three decades, found a correlation between traffic congestion and negative health effects such as higher blood pressure and stress.

Novaco's research team measures the blood pressure and heart rate of commuters shortly after they arrive at work and again two hours later. Commuters also fill out detailed questionnaires on their home and work lives. "The longer the commute, the more illness" and more illness-related work absences occur, he said.

"If you're driving an hour-and-a-half each way twice a day for 30 years, the consequences don't catch up with you at 32, they catch up in your 50s ," said Jerry L. Deffenbacher, a professor of psychology at Colorado State University, who uses a computerized driving simulator to test the connection between traffic congestion and anger. "Like smoking, it wouldn't be immediately obvious."

Drivers with multiple route changes are at greater risk, Novaco found after plotting out the commutes of his study subjects. "It's a physical strain as well as psychological one," he said. "It's frustrative and activates negative emotional states, and that generally has an effect on physical well-being."

Long solo commutes are especially tough on women, Novaco said his research found. Women, he said, generally "had more responsibility for getting family up and running and were significantly more likely to report being rushed to get to work."

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