5 Ways to Set Yourself Up to Avoid Back Pain While Traveling

Brent Wells May 14, 2019
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Is there anything worse than finally heading out on your long awaited and much anticipated trip, only to find that your neck and back are killing you? 

I’m sure that plenty of us have been there, done that!
While a quick 2 hour hop on an airplane might not be too bad, but the hours spent waiting for your flight (especially international flights!) in those uncomfortable lobbies, sitting on buses or taxis, or trains can wreak absolute havoc on your back and/or neck, even if you don’t already have a back problem!
It’s hard to tell which is worse, hours sitting on a plane or those hours spent on a less than ideal hotel bed with a crater in the middle the size of the Grand Canyon.

While each method of travel poses a different set of problems, the idea is to find ways to support the neck and spine, so you can travel with as much ease as possible.
Of course, if you are driving, you have the advantage of being able to stop when you want, as often as you want, so you can stretch, walk around, and prevent your back from becoming stiff.

However, many of us travel via plane, and as tight as airlines like to pack us in their seats, it’s enough to make anyone stiff and sore!
Avoid back and neck pain, as well as stiff joints and muscles, by practicing a few of these tips before, during, and after your vacation.

1. See Your Chiropractor Before Your Trip

If you are already seeing a chiropractor for back or neck problems, good for you! If you aren’t this might be a good time to get to know one.

As a doctor of chiropractic, I am always excited to hear my patients vacation plans.
Since I am well acquainted with their issues, I can explain to them how to best deal with their individual problems and make travel more comfortable. 

If you are experiencing back or neck pain (or any type of joint pain) you should consider seeing a chiropractor for a few weeks before your trip.
Your local chiropractor can determine the root cause of your pain and help you find ways to deal with it naturally, without drugs.
Depending on what the chiropractor finds, they can make a few adjustments, show you some exercises and stretching techniques that can strengthen weak muscles and stretch tight connecting tissues.

You can also explain your travel plans and ask their advice for avoiding back or neck pain.

2. Take the Time to Stretch

If you are taking a plane and you plan on sleeping through most of the flight, you will most likely want a window seat.

For everyone else, try to get an aisle seat. This will allow you to stand up, walk back and forth (when the aisle isn’t blocked by the drink cart).
Sitting in one position for long periods of time can cause anyone’s joints and muscles to tighten up and make you feel stiff and sore.

If you can’t get up, you can usually do a few simple stretches in your seat. Roll your head (gently) from one side to the other. Look up and down, then side to side.
Interlock your fingers and reach your hands above your head and hopefully out in front of you (if you have the space!).

You can also take a trip to the bathroom and while the accommodations there are certainly tight, you might have enough room to bend over and stretch your spine by trying to touch the floor, then reach up for the ceiling.
You can also do a few high steps (bringing your knees to your chest) while you are there, to help loosen things up.

When you are in your hotel room, don’t forget to stretch a bit before bed and before you get going the next morning. A few simple stretches can help prepare your back and neck for your big day!

3. Focus on Posture

Your mother probably lectured you about your posture and you know what? She was right. Not only does sitting for long periods put an extra strain on your lower back but doing so with poor posture only makes things worse.

Sit with your back against the backrest and that the headrest is about in the middle of your head.
Keep your shoulders straight but pulled down. Don’t slouch forward, let your head jut forward, and don’t bring your shoulders up.

If you seem to catch yourself slouching, there are a few tools that help to remind you to sit up straight.
There are posture tracking sensors that vibrate if you slouch and some people swear by posture shirts, which have a built-in brace to prevent you from slouching.

If you aren’t sure what “good posture” actually is, you can ask your chiropractor or doctor to look at your posture and help correct it.
If you remember nothing else, remember to stop crossing your legs. This cuts off the circulation to the legs as well as leading to a rounded lower back.

This is because it is almost impossible to cross your legs while sitting and not slouch, simply not crossing your legs might be enough to help you sit up with better posture.

4. Think Support

Support can mean a couple of things, so first let’s talk about support as in pillows. While you don’t want to be bogged down with a half dozen bed pillows, a few weeks before you head out the door, experiment with a variety of small pillows.
Some people will find lumbar pillows are excellent for their lower back pain, while others will want to include a neck support pillow.

Another means of “support” would be to support your own good health. This means that if you possibly can, buy that first class or business upgrade so you can have a better seat.
You can also book a massage once you reach your destination to help relieve any back, neck, or other pains that you might have acquired during your trip.
If you don’t have time for a day spa type of massage, almost all airports have those pay by the minute massage chairs, which aren’t perfect but beat the heck out sitting in those uncomfortable airport chairs!

Don’t forget to let support personnel help you when you need it.
No one will think less of you if you allow a younger, stronger person to lift that suitcase for you.

Avoid carrying a lot of heavy bags or wearing a heavy purse or backpack on one shoulder.

5. Manage Stress

Have you ever noticed that stress can make back pain even worse? This is due most times to the tightening of our muscles when we feel stress.

Tight muscles pull things like your vertebrae out of place, causing pain.
So, while you might be going on a once in a lifetime trip, don’t overschedule your itinerary.

The stress you will endure (and the back or neck pain that will follow) when you feel pressured for time isn’t worth it. Allow yourself time to rest and plenty of time between activities.
And while there are plenty of things that are out of your control, the one thing you can control is your attitude. 

When your plane is delayed, when the hotel can’t find your reservation, or when the taxi driver is either lost or trying to rack up more charges, don’t get angry and stress out because the trip isn’t going the way you thought it would.
Laugh at it! No one ever died because their plane was delayed. You are going to be telling stories about all the mishaps and laughing about them a few years from now, so why ruin your trip by stressing out and adding back pain to the situation?
Make a positive playlist of songs that make you feel happy when you listen to it, bring along a lighthearted book or try deep breathing exercises. When things go wrong, go left!

Or go right! But don’t go to stressed out land and end up with a sour face and a bad back to show for it.

About Dr. Brent Wells, D.C.

Dr. Brent Wells is the founder of Better Health Chiropractors Anchorage. When he isn’t working, Dr. Wells, his wife Coni, and their children love to travel, hike, and see all the wonders of the world.