It’s no secret that it can be extremely difficult to manage back pain while traveling. Sitting in one position for extended periods of time stiffens the back muscles, which can put stress on the spine. In a perfect world you would get up, stretch and move around every 20 to 30 minutes to move your core muscles, but sometimes that isn’t always feasible. Below are some helpful tips and suggestions on how to manage back pain while traveling so you can stay pain-free!
Lift luggage in stages. Move slowly when lifting your luggage and break the action into smaller parts. For example, when lifting a bag into an overhead bin, it can first be lifted to the arm of the seat, then to the top of the seat-back, and then into the bin in separate motions.
Ship ahead. One of the best solutions for luggage: just mail your essentials to your destination ahead of time. This way you avoid luggage entirely and can carry just one small bag on board with you. No hassle. No pain.
Use a backpack. Do not sling a bag over one shoulder (unless it is a very light handbag). Use a good quality lightweight backpack. Use both straps. The generally recommended maximum weight of a backpack is 10-15% of your body weight and even less if you have a painful back. Using a backpack has the added advantage of leaving your hands free to hold onto handrails on escalators, stairs, the boarding ramp, etc.
Recline. For many back conditions, sitting in a slightly reclined position is least stressful on the back. If this is the case, remember to check that your seat will recline when making your reservation and getting a seat assignment. Some seats in exit rows or at the back of the plane do not allow you to recline.
Stretch key muscles. Sitting for extended periods can cause stiffness and tension in the hamstrings (the muscles in the back of the thighs) and hip flexor muscles, which in turn puts added stress on the low back. Ask your physical therapist for a few safe hamstring and hip stretches you can do while traveling.
Fix the seat. Place a small rolled-up airline pillow, blanket, towel, or lumbar pillow between your back and the seat to support the natural inward curve of your lower back. You may also use commercial low back supports if you prefer. Supporting the curve in your low back is especially important with many airplane seats, as they are often worn out and force your lower back to an unnatural, stressful position. If the bottom of the seat is concave from too much use, place a folded blanket on the seat.
Use your feet. Leverage from your feet is also required to support your low back. While seated, your knees should be bent at a 90° angle. If your seat is too high, place your feet on something that can act as a firm footrest, like a book or box, to keep your knees at a right angle and avoid stressing the low back.
Stay on top of your workout routine. This is especially key in the week or so leading up to your trip. The stronger your muscles and lubricated your joints are, the more prepared your body will be with handling uncomfortable, strenuous commuting. Keeping these tips in mind will help you successfully manage back pain while traveling.