How to Safely Travel with Back Pain: Tips for Road Trips, Flights, and Accommodations

Issue 39
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Traveling with back pain can be a challenging and uncomfortable experience. However, with proper preparation and a few handy tips, you can make your journey more enjoyable and minimise the impact on your back. In this article, we will cover some essential strategies for road trips, flights, and accommodations to help you manage your back pain while traveling.

Preparing for Your Trip

If you’re getting ready to travel and are recovering from or have a history of back pain, preparation can really help. Firstly, the recognition that the activities involved in travel are out of the ordinary, and therefore they’re likely to be activities that tax your body in ways it is not conditioned for. Fundamentally this highlights the importance of ongoing maintenance through a healthy lifestyle with routine resistance training. Doing so ensures your body is an organism capable of more, so when activities place strain on this “conditioned body” it is more likely to soak up the challenge without a problem. 

If you are at the point where you still have some back pain, or this is your first longer trip since recovering, there are some simple strategies to help keep your low back as good as possible given the change in activities.

If you are one of our Premium Members then you’ve got support wherever you are so use it (before the trip) in our members area to share some of the details and the team & community will happily offer some words of wisdom to help you avoid a crisis ruining the trip before you even get there!

Packing Essentials:

  • A small rolled towel for support when seated that can double up and be used when you’re able to lie down.
  • Biofreeze spray (gel or creams work too) to be used in the place of icing as ice is often not easily accessible. To be used directly on the spine in the lower back.
  • Vibration or massage gun (bonus item) these are so inexpensive these days and are a great travel companion to help the muscles. 

Note for vibration & massage guns. If you suffer from DVT, any similar conditions, or take medications that could increase the risk of these, you must consult your physician or doctor before using it, especially during long haul travel.

Road Trip Tips

When it comes to road trips you tend to be a little more fortunate in that you have the flexibility to dictate the schedule and how frequently you’re stopping off on the journey. Firstly, the seating position is important and working to make sure that you’re comfortable and a neutral spine is supported will be vital. This is the point at which that small towel can come in real handy. Often the built in lumbar supports are not strong enough, and the “special lumbar supports” you can buy online are simply too large. A rolled up towel here offers much more customisation and it will slip down your back as you start to slouch, indicating to you that you need to readjust. Other options mentioned will simply allow the slouch, some even reinforcing it! 

The second tip for road trips is to be fidgety when not using the towel, fidgeting helps continually redistribute the weight around your lower back and through the discs of the low back in particular. Think of the prevalence of bed sores in the bed bound individual. It occurs because the consistent pressure on the same spot damages the tissues. Granted the example of being in bed for days on end without moving is a little far from the realities of a road trip. However, for the road trip with the injured spine, the concept has utility. Fidgeting helps prevent strain building on one particular point and decreasing the likelihood of that part of the lower back that’s healing being pushed to a point which it cannot happily tolerate.

Thirdly, taking regular breaks at service stations or just on the side of the road where it is safe to do so is just a no brainer. Getting out of the car, stretching your legs and going for a walk is a great way to disrupt the pattern mentioned above. It also gives you an opportunity to do some lower body stretching. Some simple stretches of the hip flexors and hamstrings in particular can really work to oppose the often shortened position these muscles are held in during the car trip, and even a short blast of 30 seconds on each muscle group 2 times through can really free the muscles and hips. This makes it easier to adopt a good posture in the car too. With the legs tightening up, you’ll find these muscles in particular pull on the back having an indirect impact on the lower back, something you could easily do without!

Finally, that towel stretch would certainly be a helpful option should you have the ability to lie down on these short breaks mentioned in the previous paragraph, this is what we would consider to be the best stretch for back pain and one you should try to incorporate into your trip to help ease pressure on the low back!. 

Air Travel Strategies

When it comes to long haul flights there are some things that we cannot avoid altogether, such as the luggage that we might need to take. But at the same time, this is something that can be lots harder, or much easier depending on simple decisions we make. First off with luggage, having someone else carrying it is always the easiest option. That being off the cards, then selection of a suitcase with wheels is a great starting point. 

One of the reasons we’re so insistent on the need to continue progressing with resistance as you continue your rehabilitative strengthening is for occasions such as this. It makes sense to pack as light as is practical, but it is common for holiday suitcases to be in excess of 20kg and more cumbersome than a 20kg kettlebell to lift and manoeuvre. If you regularly shift resistances and weights in your workouts in excess of this 20kg mark, you’ll find it much easier than if you’re one of the ones who’ve shied away from “weights”. Granted there is a limit to what’s necessary strength wise, but weakness is never a strength and being able to handle a 20kg holiday suitcase is something the vast majority of us should be able to do. So make sure your resistance training reflects this!

When it comes to traveling through the airport, make use of trolleys and try to offload your luggage earlier. Checking in earlier to avoid long check in lines and get into the relative flexibility and comfort of the departure lounge is a sensible use of forward planning. The last thing you want if you have back pain is to stand in long cues interspersed with periods of frantically rushing through the airport so as to not miss the plane. 

Seat selection particularly on longer flights can make a huge difference to your comfort and ability to execute some of these strategies. For example, if you choose the window seat, the barriers to leaving your seat are increased, literally. If instead you choose the aisle seat, you have the freedom to get up and move around whenever you like, plus the need for those next to you to leave their seats for bathroom breaks etc, will be another prompt to get you moving and changing position, double benefit! 

Just like the road trip, using the towel or cushion provided to support the lower back, reclining the seat and taking the time to get up and walk around can all help mitigate the effect of long periods of sitting that are common with air travel. 

Take Off, Landing & Turbulence

Three of the key areas that affect people with more active back pain that have to take a flight are the take off and landing, where you’re thrust down and back, into your seat. Secondarily, when turbulence strikes the bumpy nature can be worse than driving on an uneven road, buffeting around in the air can really aggravate your lower back. During these times, using the arm rests to take the load of your torso off your back can provide a little respite, decreasing the compressive load going through the lower back.

Removing Items From Overhead Storage

Finally after the long flight, remember even if you have managed to do the above and avoided sitting cocooned in your seat for 9 straight hours, you’re still likely to be a little stiff. Bear this in mind as you go to remove items from overhead storage, wait until you can stand square to the storage compartment. All too often as the seatbelt sign is disabled, you see people shoot to their feet in the mad scramble to get their baggage out, often with little regard for the posture they’re adopting. Most will get away with it, but if you’ve come this far without trouble, a few extra seconds or minutes to do this in an ergonomic way can make a big difference. Better yet, ask a fellow able-bodied passenger to help out!

Accommodation Considerations

When it comes to accommodation this is often where we have a little more control, within budget. Consider hotels that offer extra pillows and are renowned for the quality of their bed mattresses. Additional pillows can be used to help support your knees and hips when lying on your side and therefore offer you a more back-friendly sleeping position. We go into detail on sleeping positions in other areas, suffice to say, the same advice you might follow at home should be continued when away. 

Things can often become more challenging when on certain types of holidays where accommodation is not perhaps the typical hotel style, however these sorts of holidays will of course be planned in advance and so considerations of the appropriateness of such a holiday will be taken at the time of booking. 

Staying Active & Back Pain Free During Your Trip

So long as when you’re away you recognise the difference in daily activities, and plan for these changes you will be in good stead. For example, if you usually spend 9 hours a day in the office sitting down, like the typical adult, a city break full of sight seeing is a change! A couple of days racking up more than 10 km of walking will be a massive change from the usual. Whatever the example, recognising the difference is the first smart step. 

Following on from this, having strategies such as the bed decompression, the towel exercise and the Phase One routine specifically are great ways for you to quickly offset some of the novel strain your body is placed under during the enjoyable activities of your trip. 

A proactive approach is always the best! If you know you’ve done more than usual, and are feeling ok, do the above anyway, don’t let the days rack up without anything to offset the strain from the holiday activities. This strategy takes next to no time and will help make sure the entirety of your trip is back pain free!

If you’re abroad for a few days, perhaps a long weekend just enjoy yourself, with some of the work we’ve mentioned above to offset the strain of a busy “long weekend break”. However, if you’re away for a longer spell, perhaps a week to a fortnight, make some time to continue working out. If your hotel has gym facilities make use of them with a simple workout. Perhaps if you’re a member, one of your usual workouts from the Phases will be a great way to keep your body active in all the right places during your holiday. This helps you keep in the groove of active exercise and when all is said and done, it amounts to 30 to 45 minutes with the benefits self-evident!

Returning Home & Post Trip Care

On your way back home, all the same strategies remain relevant so following those is always a good idea. When it comes to easing back into your routines, just take your time, that first week back from holiday don’t step the intensity up a notch of your usual workouts, but instead just go through the motions at a 75% level of intensity. Then as you get back into your stride again, you can begin to scale the intensity of your workouts up as you get back into the swing of things. 

All in all a trip abroad for those with back pain can be a source of major anxiety. Fear that a runaway suitcase could spell disaster for the eagerly anticipated trip. This doesn’t need to be the case at all, hopefully this article and episode has given you a little to consider to help make your trip a success, and remember for those of you in the membership, it’s like you’ve got your own advisor there with you! You can feel free to share in the group knowing the team are there to help offer more bespoke guidance tips to make sure you have the best time away and your back isn’t an issue!

To learn more about becoming a member and how Back In Shape can help you recover from back pain or sciatica, check out the link below!

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