Healthy Back Tips

March 2012

Travel Tips for Your Low Back and Neck

Travel can precipitate back or neck pain or aggravate an existing condition.  The sedentary nature of sitting in a confined space causes mechanical loading on the low back.  Neck and shoulder strain from holding a car steering wheel for sustained periods is also common.  Back and neck muscles may also tense from the stress of driving.  One additional factor known to aggravate spinal pain conditions during travel relates to vibration from the car or plane which jars the vertebral column.  The inability to easily adjust position when confined to an airplane or car seat results in mechanical stress concentration to specific components of the vertebra and intervertebral disc which are pain sensitive.


                The first recommendation to reduce the likelihood of neck or back discomfort is to plan time for your travel.  Worrying about making your plane flight on time creates un-necessary muscle tension in the back or neck.  Arrive at the airport in plenty of time to allow for check in, ticketing and security clearance so that you do not have to rush.  If you are taking a long trip bring a ram neck collar support to help rest your head, lessen muscle tension and prevent extreme end range head positions which may happen if you fall asleep.  For plane trips select an aisle or a bulk-head seat to allow your legs to stretch out when possible.  For car travel push your seat back as far as possible for more leg room if you are not driving.  While you are in the waiting area at the airport stand or walk so as to reduce the total amount of sitting time during your travel.


                If the car or plane seat pan is sloped down towards the backrest, level the seat by either using a folded beach towel for the car seat or a folded airplane blanket for the plane seat.  A level seat pan lessens the degree of slumping or rounding of the spine.  A lumbar support may also be helpful in relaxing the low back muscles as well as maintaining the normal curve in the low back.  Some lumbar supports are air inflatable and easier to travel with.  In regards to luggage, use roller board luggage carriers so that actual carrying time is reduced.  When purchasing roller board carriers examine the wheels to make sure the luggage rolls freely with minimal friction so as to lessen muscle effort in pulling. 


                Before lifting carry-on luggage to an overhead bin set your feet shoulder width apart and bend your hips and knees to use your legs.  Preset your abdominal muscles prior to the lift to stabilize your low back.  One method for protecting the low back from a lifting injury involves utilization of the abdominal drawing in maneuver.  Efficient deep abdominal contraction requires proper training, practice and implementation prior to the task demand to be effective in protecting the low back from injury.


                After every 15 minutes of sitting time roll your pelvis back and forth so as to slightly round and arch your low back for 5 minutes.  Gentle pelvic tilt exercise in the sitting position facilitates movement activity in the lumbar spine, but requires practice and repetition to perform currently.  By making sitting more dynamic and less sedentary the body weight pressure transmitted into the low back does not statically build in any one section on the vertebra or discs.  On the plane take advantage of standing up and walking the aisle when your back tires from sitting.  As a general rule stand or walk 5-10 minutes for every hour of flight time.


                To minimize impact loading on the low back during a plane landing sit with a slight arch in the low back and transfer some weight into your feet on the floor.  Unweight the lumbar spine by pressing your hands into the armrests and draw in your abdominal muscles to stabilize your low back.  In this way the low back will receive less force as the plane strikes the landing strip.


                Following a long trip lie down and rest for at least 20 minutes to decompress the spine. Decompression time allows the discs to return to normal height, restores space for spinal nerves, takes pressure off the spinal joints and allows the paraspinal muscles to relax.  Enjoying your visit without experiencing low back or neck pain may depend on effective implementation of these suggestions.  If these strategies are not helpful perhaps you should consult one of the physical therapists at the Atlanta Back Clinic to determine the nature of your spinal problem.  For an appointment call 770-491-6004.