We’re getting to that time of the year when everyone is itching to get out of town, hit the open road, and drive as far as the stars will take them. As a chiropractor for lower back pain, I know that a long car ride is not always the best way to start off a vacation. Spending a long time sitting cramped in a car with kids fighting in the back seat can cause muscle tension, stress, and aches and pains in more than one place.
It’s been said many times before, but sitting is the new smoking. Except we’ve bypassed the phase where smoking was “kool” and immediately proceeded to the “pull the TV ads this stuff is actually really dangerous” phase. Whether it’s at work or on our way to the Dollywood, sitting forces our body into a position it wasn’t meant to be in, causing posture issues, muscle tension, and nerve dysfunction. There are other ways to travel by car that don’t involve sitting…
…but they seem a bit impractical. These tips to prevent back pain don’t just work in the car, they apply to anyone who finds themselves in a long commute, an ergonomically challenged workspace, or one of those tubes that takes us from one city to another really fast via the sky. I can’t seem to remember what they’re called.
1. Get Comfy Immediately
Empty out those pockets of wallets, phones, keys, batteries, chargers, receipts from four days ago, smarties that the kids rightfully weren’t interested in from last halloween – our weight should be evenly distributed so it doesn’t throw our spine out of alignment.
Sit up straight with knees slightly higher than the hips.
Sit a comfortable distance from the steering wheel so as not to strain the shoulder or back muscles.
Have a hydrating beverage close at hand, air temperature perfectly regulated, and clothes that allow for movement but also scream high class – we need to set ourselves up for success.
2. Watch Your Posture
Posture seems like a trite thing to mention when it comes to back pain, but in fact it is the #1 cause of lower back pain. Our posture practices in America are abysmal. Sitting, hunched over all day with our heads buried in a computer or a phone can have permanent physically altering effects. We need to be more intentional about protecting the health of our spine and thus the health of our entire body.
Both feet should be flat on an even surface. For drivers, throw the car in cruise control and give your legs a chance to rest. Proper back support starts in the feet. Use a footrest or rest them on a bag so that they can create some leverage for the rest of the body.
Support the inward curve of the lumbar spine. If the car seat doesn’t provide much in the way of support, place a pillow or rolled up towel or jacket at the base of the spine to provide adequate support.
Both ears should line up over the shoulders without the chin jutting forward, and the shoulders should be aligned over the hips, to avoid hunching the back.
Make sure the headrest is supporting the middle of the head and doesn’t push the head forward.
Neck pillows are a perfect solution, for the car or plane, to sleep without straining the neck too far in one direction and just letting the head hang there as drool slowly cascades from an open mouth. Nothing is worse than waking up an hour into a 5 hour drive with raging neck pain. Neck pillows are not recommended for drivers.
For those of us with longer legs, I’ve heard it can get pretty cramped back there in coach. I wouldn’t know myself. Request an exit row or a bulkhead seat to get some more room for those elegant stems.
3. Move Around
It can be difficult to move around in a moving car, especially in the driver’s seat, but staying sedentary for long periods of time dehydrates joints and can have structural consequences to the spine.
So take those potty breaks, stop for a lotto ticket in each state, try to eat at every Panera on I55. This will allow the whole crew to get moving and stretch out their hamstrings, necks, and lower backs.
Simple and gentle stretches can be done in any rest stop parking lot. If it’s an intense crew, do a plank contest, whoever holds it the longest gets to be DJ for the rest of the trip.
Shift positions periodically while driving, even the driver can do this. Even 10 seconds of adjusting is better than sitting still. Adjust the seat or pump the ankles to give the hamstrings a light stretch.
Get up and stretch on the plane, just don’t get in the way of those drink carts they sometimes take toes as souvenirs.
- Seated knee pulls – sit up straight, tray table in its upright and locked position of course, pull the right knee straight up towards the right shoulder and hold for 30 seconds. This will take pressure off the joints in the lower back.
- Seated lumbar rotation – With the knees facing forward turn the upper body to the left and hold. Then to the right. This will remind the spine that it’s still in a living human being.
- Sciatic nerve gliding – in the aisle or galley slowly swing both legs, one at a time, 30 degrees forward and back.
- Standing March – with hands on hips raise each knee towards the chest in a stationary march. Do it with the intensity of an angry mother who storms into the high school theater director’s office to ask why their child didn’t get the part of Miss Casewell in the Spring production of The Mousetrap because “she’s absolutely better than that Gina Thompson girl!”
Don’t be embarrassed about getting up, it may inspire other people to take better care of themselves. Plus everybody loves a show. Just make sure to follow all FAA regulations and instructions from the inflight crew.
4. Alternate Between Ice and Heat
Cold therapy reduces swelling and numbs pain. 🚗Surely a cooler has been packed in the trunk. Throw some reusable cold packs in there, alongside the Whiteclaws and apples that no one will eat. ✈️ Pack a plastic bag and ask the flight attendant for some ice from the drink cart. They may even be able to store a small gel pack in the fridge.
Heat therapy soothes tight joints & muscles and promotes relaxation. 🚗Heat wraps or pads, portable hand warmers, even turning on the heated seats for those of us with fancy cars. ✈️ Flight attendants may be able to fill a hot water bottle. Whether using disposable hand warmers or battery operated heating pads make sure to check the current TSA guidelines. Who knows what those people are thinking.
It may be tempting to take medication as a quick fix for any pain, but remember that those pills come with some nasty side effects. There are plenty of natural alternatives to medication that are easy to find on vacation.
5. Treat Yo’self
Breathe. Listen to the new Phoebe Bridgers album or an audio book of Bossypants. Pack “naughty” snacks that you wouldn’t eat on a normal Tuesday. Bring a book you’ve been meaning to start. Stare at the clouds and think about how big the world is. Take time to decompress and enjoy the vacation. Stress accumulates and lowers our immune response making us fertile ground for bacterial and viral infections. It also prevents the body from fully healing. Invest in your health by enjoying your vacation.
One great way to not worry about chronic lower back pain is to seek regular chiropractic care. We provide chiropractic treatment to patients dealing with lower back pain every single day. 80% of people suffer from low back at some point in their lives, but they don’t have to! Lasting lower back pain relief is possible through regular maintenance of the spine.
Chiropractic adjustments, strengthening and stabilizing exercises, massage therapy, even deep tissue laser will keep the spine in its proper, healthy structure reducing pain symptoms and dysfunction throughout the body. The spine protects the nervous system which transmits messages from the brain to every part of the body. A healthy spine, means a healthy body. Call our office or schedule a time to meet with one of our awesome doctors. Pain signals to the body that something is not right. It’s not normal and doesn’t have to be a part of life. Safe travels!