4 Tips to Avoid Back Pain When Traveling

By: David Stedjan, PT, MPT, OCS


Summer is upon us and after 2 years of avoiding traveling, I am hearing soooo many people tell me about their summer plans (… and that we need to take care of their back problems before they go away. We are currently working on just that in our office everyday!). AAA estimated that 8.3% more travel during just the Memorial Day holiday this year versus last, so it's obvious that people are back out and about and enjoying the ability to travel this summer. AND that’s going to mean the exacerbation of many people’s low back pain—especially with all the traffic and airline delays that have been running rampant this year.


Why does traveling cause so many problems in our spines?


Traveling, whether by car, train, plane, or—even—boat, tends to involve a lot of sitting. Our backs hate to sit, especially for a long time. And the seats in these vehicles tend not to have the same support as that expensive chair that you bought to work at home during the lockdown that has kept you able to work all this time with minimal back pain (Check out the blog I wrote about this “Has Quarantine Become a Pain in the Butt” for more on this.) So, sitting in these seats forces you to use your stabilizers in your back to work overtime, which causes fatigue and bad positions.


Traveling, also, tends to completely throw off your schedule. Your sleep, eating, and exercise routines are thrown out the window either to get to your destination quicker or to see everything that you can when you get there. Your bed is different, the chairs for dinner are different, and your exercise routine very often includes walking around new places (which is either much more or much less than your normal day).


Any of these issues can flair up your back pain and stiffness, not to mention that you are probably doing ALL of them…that is a recipe for a bad vacation!



Here are my 4 Top Tips to ease (and hopefully Prevent) Back Pain while you Travel:


1. The 30 minute Rule!


The biggest strain on our bodies when traveling is the prolonged time sitting, whether its cramped up in an airplane or a car, sitting on a couch for hours while visiting, or sitting on a bad beach chair for hours on end. This is not good!


Our bodies are meant to move!


Whenever possible, get out of your seat to keep your back healthy and mobile. One of the best things that you can do for your spine is to avoid any prolonged posture—especially sitting. So, get up every 30 minutes—even if you can stand for a few seconds, it will do a world of good for your spine. BUT an even better use of that time would be to stretch by arching your back and reaching as far up as possible.


The more you move, the better you will feel.


2. Use a Lumbar Roll


Our low back is designed to have a curve. This curve is there for two very specific reasons—to support and balance forces and for shock absorption. When you sit for long periods of time (especially with poor support), that curve begins to decrease and occasionally disappears all together, which puts undue pressure on the muscles, ligaments and discs in our backs and causes pain and stiffness. Sitting for periods of time—preferably shorter periods—is perfectly fine, but those long periods sitting all curled will make that trip seem to last forever—and not the way you want it to last forever.


One of the best things you can do is to use a Lumbar roll to maintain the natural curve in your lower back. A lumbar roll is a cylindrical pillow that you put between your lower back and the chair to help hold you in a good sitting position. I hear everyone say that their car has “good Lumbar support”, but often after a few hours that support just isn’t enough. You can get a McKenzie Lumbar roll (yes, we have some in the office if you need one today) or you can roll up a towel or a sweatshirt in a pinch (if you don’t heed my warning ahead of time).


By sitting in a position with a good lumbar curve while being stuck in a car or plane for hours, you can hold off that back pain better and allow you to enjoy the scenery.


3. Bring Your Own Pillow—and use the other pillows for the rest of you


Sleeping on surfaces that you’re not used to can not only cause back pain, but can ruin your vacation.


If possible, bring your pillow from home. It is not only more sanitary, but it allows you to keep you head in your usual sleeping position. (If your pillow is not comfortable, or you think that your pillow is contributing to an uncomfortable night’s sleep…we need to talk, click here for a phone call to discuss solutions for your pillow problem.)


Then, take the pillows that the hotel or your family members provide you and use them to keep your body in a neutral sleeping position by putting one between your knees and/or under your side if the mattress is too soft. Or if it's too hard, you can use them to cushion your hips and shoulders.


Sleep is critical to healing and if your sleep routine is disturbed by a bad pillow or bed, you will have a sore back, so use those extra pillows to help!


4. Don’t Bend, EXTEND!


Did you know that the average person bends forward between three and five thousand times a day? And when you’re traveling, that number is, definitely, on the higher end of the range. Our spines need to be balanced between time bending and extending (or bending backwards). Due to the disproportionate time spent bending forward, we need to make an effort to move our spines in the opposite direction. When you’re traveling, look for opportunities to stay upright and be mobile.


Walking is an excellent and therapeutic activity for your spine, as it is an activity that includes extension with every time you take a step and your leg goes behind you—plus it’s a great way to see the sights.


Also, while you are following the 30 minute rule, take some time to bend backwards each time you stand up to interrupt your sitting.


If you spend some time following these tips, you will be in the best position to enjoy your trips this summer. When you get back from your trip, make sure you take some time before jumping back into your regularly scheduled life to really make sure your back is bending nice and your flexibility is back to normal.


If you need some help, getting your back ready for your big trip OR getting your back back in shape when you return, click here to ask how we can help!


For more information on how to keep your back healthy, click this link to get our FREE BACK PAIN Guide!


Enjoy your Summer Trips!!!