The Subway vs. My Back
November 20, 2009 2:29 PM   Subscribe

Is the subway causing my body to hurt?

I've been riding the NYC subway twice a day for the last few months, and I'm noticing an overall body/back ache that I haven't felt before. I've looked around for research on this, but all I can find is a study showing that a test group of subway operators suffer more back and neck pain than a control group. Apparently total-body-vibration is not such a good thing in large doses.

Is the subway causing minute but detectable bodily injury?
Have others noticed this?
What can I do about it, other than walk three hours to work every day?

Thanks, Mefites!

(It's also possible that my teaching job, what with its stress and being on my feet all day, is also contributing.)
posted by airguitar2 to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'd chalk it up to teaching, or being tense generally--perhaps even being tense on the subway, if riding the rails in a well-packed sardine is a new experience for you. I was born and raised in NYC, took the subway everywhere, everyday, for, oh 33 years, with no ill effects.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 2:39 PM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Highly doubtful. I've ridden it pretty much every day for my entire life and have never had back problems.
posted by dfriedman at 2:40 PM on November 20, 2009

I don't really think we have enough info to give an informed response. Do you usually sit on the subway? Stand? If you stand, do you hold onto the bar or do you surf? Do you travel during extremely busy times?

An ex-nyc-er myself, I don't really see how the Subway, inherently, could be causing your back pain. I mean, maybe the vibration is irritating something in your back - you should see a doctor about that. Otherwise, being on the subway is pretty much like sitting or standing...on a bus or in your apt or whatever.

It sounds like your teaching job - as you are on your feet all day - is probably a much more likely culprit.

In my days as a New Yorker, I discovered that just about every aspect of the city made my body ache.
posted by Lutoslawski at 2:42 PM on November 20, 2009

Since you're on your feet constantly at your job, I'd bet on that. Being on your feet for hours at a time, even when you're not really moving around much, can wear you out all over. Do you stand or sit on the subway? (I bet standing, since it's NYC.)

Probably the best things to do would be to get very good comfortable shoes designed for walking/standing (I can't personally recommend a brand but everyone I know raves about Danskos) and to carry as little as possible during your commute. If you must carry a lot with you, consider investing in an ergonomic bag (though again I can't personally vouch for a specific brand).
posted by Metroid Baby at 2:43 PM on November 20, 2009

I'll bet you're sitting in one of the sideways seats.
posted by Sys Rq at 2:44 PM on November 20, 2009

Bingo, Sys Rq -- I'd bet the same thing. The forces that repeated, rapid acceleration and deceleration on subway trains place on the body can cause or aggravate back pain. Supposedly this is one of the reasons why Toronto's subways continue to have the so-called "transverse" (i.e. forward/backward-facing) seats despite what has been described to me as the TTCs persistent history of attempts to eliminate them from successive new train purchases.
posted by onshi at 4:00 PM on November 20, 2009

Err, I should say that complaints of or on behalf of people with back pain about the sideways seats are why the transverse seating has been retained.
posted by onshi at 4:01 PM on November 20, 2009

I work in mass transit, and I assure you that merely riding a train as a passenger for, say 1/2 hour twice a day would not cause neck or back pain.

Subway motormen sit in non-ergonomically-designed seats for 8 hours or more each day, and have to stare straight ahead at signals while holding their arm & wrist in unnatural positions (using significant pressure) to operate the train. In addition to neck and back pain, repetitive stress injuries to the wrist and hand are very common after several years of this job.

The vibration of the moving train has nothing to do with it. In fact, the movement of the train might well alleviate some of the pain-causing issues for the motormen, by slightly shifting their positioning.
posted by RRgal at 4:01 PM on November 20, 2009

This isn't a solution to your overall problem, but icing your back (about fifteen minutes at a time, several times per night) after work can help it recover from what you put it through during the day dramatically faster.
posted by ignignokt at 4:25 PM on November 20, 2009

Highly doubtful. I've ridden it pretty much every day for my entire life and have never had back problems.

Same, but I almost always stand. Try standing (and facing forward) for a few weeks, see if that helps.
posted by davejay at 4:29 PM on November 20, 2009

My back starts hurting like heck when I sit on the train for more than 20 minutes. It's embarrassing, because I grew up in Brooklyn.
posted by KateHasQuestions at 4:37 PM on November 20, 2009

"I work in mass transit, and I assure you that merely riding a train as a passenger for, say 1/2 hour twice a day would not cause neck or back pain."

Not sitting on seats along the outside of a car facing inward, sliding left and right, tensing up to keep from keeling over as the train stops? Perhaps you've never had back problems, but this sets me off pretty quickly.
posted by onshi at 5:22 PM on November 20, 2009

I bet it has more to do with what you're carrying. I have notorious back problems and the subway itself has never bothered me, but carrying a bag around (basically regardless of bag) makes a huge difference. Try a backpack instead of a one shoulder bag if you're currently using one.
posted by youcancallmeal at 5:51 PM on November 20, 2009

My vote is for bag, bag-carrying style, and any body tension you've accumulated during the trip. Are you on a crowded train, like the L or the Lexington Avenue line?
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 8:06 PM on November 20, 2009

Sine you're an urban teacher and a subway rider, I'm suspecting that you don't get a whole lot of full-body activity daily. I'm guessing that you have (like so many of us Americans) a comparatively sedentary lifestyle.

Pete Egoscue calls your situation "movement starvation" and it's the source of much of the chronic pain we as a society are living with.

Here's a previous comment of mine on The Egoscue Method. I'd highly recommend you go out and get his book Pain Free.

Best of luck.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 9:29 PM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you are standing in one place a lot at work, try ordering one of those padded anti-fatigue floor mats (example), like you might see your cashier at the grocery store standing on. It helps a lot... I refused to cashier without one.
posted by IndigoRain at 12:43 AM on November 21, 2009

Just another data point: My back hurts on the subway more than anywhere else. I always sit facing sideways (looking across the car, not up or down the car.) I've attributed this to hunching over my book.
posted by Ollie at 8:25 AM on November 21, 2009

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