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Bone and Joint Health

The Health Implications of Riding a Two-Wheeler: Explained by a Doctor

Riding two-wheelers offers not just freedom and convenience but also makes you look cool. However, long-term exposure to the elements can take a toll on your health. But don't fret! We've got tips for a happy, healthy ride.

Jun 27, 2024

11 min read

Written by Aasia Merchant
Medically Reviewed by 

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People riding a two-wheeler on the road

If you’re anything like me (or the rest of the 2000s kids in India), you’ve grown up watching The Dhoom Series. Dhoom wasn't just a high-octane action film released in 2004; it was a cultural catalyst that ignited a lasting love affair between India and motorcycles. But could riding two-wheelers have an unwarranted impact on your health? Dive in to find out.

The two sides of riding a two-wheeler

There's an undeniable coolness to riding a two-wheeler. With the wind whipping through your hair and the sun on your face — it's a feeling of pure freedom that’s hard to replace. However, in India, two-wheelers aren't just a style statement; they're a practical necessity for millions who rely on them for their daily commutes.

Unlike the enclosed comfort of a car, the exhilarating experience of riding a two-wheeler comes with a hidden cost: constant exposure to the environment — at varying speeds. This can significantly impact your health in the long run.

Moreover, most two-wheelers are designed with convenience in mind and do not exactly prioritise the riders’ comfort and healthy posture.

Too risky for your bones and joints?

Riding a two-wheeler can be tough on your spine.

The human skeleton is a framework of bones — all held together and supported by the spinal cord. Throughout the day, whether you're walking, sitting, or doing any other activity, your spine is constantly bearing weight and supporting your movements. 

When you ride a two-wheeler, your body is subjected to additional strain. Incorrect posture while riding, such as slouching, leaning forward, or holding your body in awkward positions, can add even more pressure to your spine.

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I love riding my bike; it’s my thing. But I almost always experience back pain and numbness right after.

Faizan, 32, who has been riding a bike for 14 years.

Dr Nikhil Bharambe, an orthopaedic and joint replacement surgeon, warns that prolonged two-wheeler riding can adversely affect your body. The repetitive motions, sustained posture, and constant exposure to dust and toxic air particles can negatively impact your back, neck, hands, wrists, and even eyes. This results in muscle and joint strain in the hips, knees, ankles, and lower back.

Sitting in the same position for extended periods strains your back muscles and spinal discs, potentially causing stiffness, pain, and even disc degeneration. Vibrations from the engine and bumpy roads can further aggravate these issues.

Dr Bharambe also highlights how constantly looking ahead while riding, especially with poor posture or a heavy helmet, can strain your neck. Repetitive movements like gripping handlebars, clutching, and shifting gears, along with supporting the motorcycle's weight at stops, can lead to overuse injuries like tendonitis, bursitis, and tightness in the hip flexors. Maintaining a bent knee position for long periods can cause stiffness and soreness.

Dr Nikhil Bharambe notes a significant rise in the number of patients who ride two-wheelers reporting back, shoulder, neck, wrist, and joint pain.

“I love riding my bike; it’s my thing. But I almost always experience back pain and numbness right after. The construction and maintenance of the roads in India are not prioritised, and being on the road is a constant risk,” says Faizan, 32, who has been riding a bike for 14 years.

Riding for hours with your back in an uncomfortable position while absorbing every bump and jolt from the road can severely impact your health. This constant strain can weaken your spine and surrounding muscles over time.

“I often get pains, especially after long rides. My neck, shoulders, and backache from wearing the helmet and keeping the same posture. At one point, I started using a posture supporter to help reduce the shoulder and back pain,” says Nimish, 24, who has been riding his scooter for six years.

“Bad roads contribute to more traffic, eventually leading to more riding time and muscle stiffness. Traffic also contributes to the need for continuous posture change and acceleration, which causes more pain,” Nimish adds.

“Riding a two-wheeler is equally stressful and enjoyable. You may experience body pain, but that’s something you don’t immediately take action on. If you’re trying to get from destination A to B, you may not be super focused on your health. Yes, the roads are bad, and most traffic rules aren’t followed. But what can you do?” says Tanvee, 23, who’s been riding her scooter for several years.

How to protect yourself as a rider

Dr Nikhil recommends:

  • First, equip yourself with a properly fitted helmet, sturdy gloves, and protective clothing like jackets and pants. These act as your armour in case of an unexpected accident.
  • Invest in well-sealed goggles or glasses to shield your eyes from dust, wind, and debris. Clear vision is crucial for safe riding.
  • Dr Bharambe advises following all traffic laws and regulations. Doing this reduces the risk of accidents significantly. 
  • Additionally, regularly practising your riding skills boosts your confidence and control while on the road. A skilled rider is a safe rider.
  • When it comes to the journey itself, please plan ahead. Be mindful of weather conditions and avoid getting caught in heavy rain or on slippery roads.
  • Riding when fatigued is a recipe for disaster. Take breaks during long journeys to prevent muscle stiffness and stay focused.
  • Dr Bharambe emphasises the importance of maintaining your two-wheeler. Schedule regular checkups and maintenance to ensure smooth performance and minimise the risk of breakdowns on the road.
  • Most importantly, always ride sober. Never ride your two-wheeler after consuming alcohol, drugs, or medications that can impair your judgement and reaction time.

Why riding two-wheelers spells trouble for your skin & hair

Riding a two-wheeler may look glamorous, but it does no favours to your skin and hair. Why?

Increasing pollution levels and sun exposure are damaging your skin barriers and drying out your hair — causing all kinds of chaffing and oil buildup. These issues can have a domino effect and lead to pimples, clogged pores, dull and dry skin and hair, skin irritation, chafing, dandruff, etc.

Dr Madhuri Agarwal, an aesthetic dermatologist, founder and medical director at Yavana Aesthetics Clinic, says, “While speeding on a two-wheeler, the daily exposure to air pollution, other vehicle fumes, dust, and smog disturbs the skin’s functioning. An air pollutant particle’s size is about 20 times smaller than a skin pore. Pollutants are usually a mixture of chemicals in the air, tiny bits of soot, and acid-liquid droplets. The other major contaminants are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and nitrous oxide. They easily penetrate the skin and activate various inflammation processes. The constant inflammation triggers skin enzymes, stripping away the skin's collagen rather than building new collagen, causing skin laxity and wrinkles. Certain pollutants like nitrous oxide and ozone disturb the skin's natural protective barrier. When that happens, the skin is exposed to a lot of free radical damage leading to cell damage, collagen breakdown, redness, and increased reactivity.”

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An air pollutant particle’s size is about 20 times smaller than a skin pore. They easily penetrate the skin and activate various inflammation processes.

Dr Madhuri Agarwal, Aesthetic Dermatologist, Founder and Medical Director at Yavana Aesthetics Clinic.

She adds, “UV or sun exposure is one of the well-known causes of premature skin ageing, pigmentation, and other skin damage. Sun exposure while riding a two-wheeler is more damaging when compared to sitting in a car as the sunlight onslaught is from all directions. The prolonged sun exposure will again cause inflammation and rapid breakdown of collagen and elastin. There is also skin cell DNA damage. This leads to early ageing signs such as open pores, leathery skin, wrinkles, and sagging.”

“Wearing an ill-fitted and poor-quality helmet can damage your hair in many ways. A helmet worn too loosely or tightly can cause hair loss due to friction. This is known as traction alopecia. Wearing a helmet for long periods can trap sweat, oil, and dirt, leading to dandruff and other infections. A poor, cheap quality helmet can give rise to allergic contact reactions too,” she highlights.

What do two-wheeler enthusiasts have to say about it?

“I’m someone who’s extremely into skin care. I will spend hours styling and taking care of my hair, so this ‘biker lifestyle’ does not work for me. I love how good riding feels, though, and it’s so convenient. But you have to be extremely careful. One time an insect went into my eye, and I have extremely sensitive eyes. After that experience, I invested in a lot of protective gear. I now wear shades, sleeves for my arms, and a jacket and also tie my hair up and fit it into the helmet. I can’t even think of stepping out without having sunscreen on. Even then, the sweat and the sun get to you, but if you’re going to be out, you might as well be ready to face the consequences. However, it’s not that bad,” says Aalia, 22, who’s been riding her bike for two years.

“I used to travel 50 km every day on my scooter and experienced some lower back pain. I also remember my face getting quite dirty due to the dust. I had to wear extra protective clothing over my shirts to prevent them from getting soiled,” says Jayansh, 40, who’s been riding a scooter for 15 years.

Nimish says, “My skin gets dry and tanned due to pollution, dirt, and heat. Occasionally, flying debris will hit my eyes or other parts of my face, even with the helmet on. Wearing a helmet frequently also messes up my hair, which requires extra aftercare.”

“I ride my scooter every day and experience skin tanning, eye strain due to the dust and constant focus, headaches because of direct exposure to the sun, pressure on the ears from wearing a tight helmet, and dust allergies,” says Bhavesh, 28, who’s been riding his scooter for 10 years.

How to protect yourself

Dr Madhuri recommends:

  • Wear full-sleeved cotton clothing while driving. 
  • A diet rich in beta carotenes and vitamins A and C helps reduce the damage internally. 
  • Use products with Vitamin C — the master antioxidant that can reduce the inflammatory process and protect the skin from pollution damage. Ferulic acid is another potent antioxidant. Use a combination of both ingredients in the morning. Always consult your dermatologist before adding a new product to your routine.
  • Then, apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen (that protects from both UVA and UVB rays) with physical agents such as iron oxide and titanium dioxide for enforced protection. Skin moisturisers with ceramides are good balancers. 
  • Cover your hair with a cotton cap or a stole that can cover your hair and face. Tie the hair in a bun and plaits, as loose hair is more likely to be damaged. Wear a soft skull cap or bandana before wearing the helmet. Keep the helmet clean. Take breaks in between two-wheeler rides by removing the helmet. Pick up shampoos with protective agents like argan oil, tea tree oil, soy amino acids, and arginine.

Perfect your posture

Dr Nikhil adds, “The handlebars should be positioned in a way that allows you to maintain a relaxed and comfortable riding posture. This means your arms should be slightly bent, with your hands resting comfortably on the grips without having to reach out too far in a way, providing good control of the vehicle. Avoid leaning forward. It should not obstruct your view of the road.” 

 Ride safely and in style

Remember folks, prioritise safeguarding your body even when indulging in high-adrenaline activities such as riding a two-wheeler. Gear up like a responsible daredevil, and pamper your skin and hair after the ride.

Happy Dhooming! (Responsibly, of course)

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