Railway Spine, Soldier’s Heart, Shell shock…

Although it was only acknowledged and labelled as such in the 1980’s, PTSD, post-traumatic stress syndrome existed much earlier.

When trains were initially introduced as means of travel and transportation this innovative creation gave rise to much excitement, critique and a new type of fear disorder. Travel became different, louder, faster, and the number of people transported with just one trip could be increased drastically.

Passengers’ reaction to the noise of the steam engine, the motion of carriages, jolts of starting and breaking to a halt, and the accidents that occurred could developed into a disorder that was soon termed the ‘Railway Spine’. Collision accidents aside of fatalities and physically injured, generated patients that expressed a specific symptom complex. These eyewitnesses and victims could feel physically weakened, with numbness and pain spreading across their limbs. They could complain of spinal pain and stiffness, headaches and neuralgia.  They could be anxious and irritable, could suffer of disturbed sleep, memory impairment and lack the ability to concentrate.

This symptom complex was, at the time, also described in soldiers of war as ‘Soldier’s heart’, and in civilians that had experienced World War I as ‘Shell shock’, and it has remained one prevalent today. It can be seen in car accidents, in what is termed ‘whiplash’, in victims of terror attacks, and in traumata of army service personnel that were engaged in warfare. This specific cluster of similar symptoms is part of the complex that today is termed ‘Post-traumatic-stress-disorder’.


Express Medicals Ltd. (2017) Railway Spine: a medical condition extinct or evolved. Personal contact.

Purtle, J. (2017) Railway spine? Soldier’s heart? Try PTSD, Available at: http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/public_health/Railway-spine-Soldiers-heart-Try-PTSD.html (Accessed: October 2017).