9 Quick Back Pain Tips for Airplane Rides

9 Quick Back Pain Tips for Airplane Rides

Looking forward to that much-awaited summer vacation but worried about dealing with chronic lower back pain, especially on a long flight?

If so, follow these lower back pain management tips -- courtesy of Spine-health’s continuing series on dealing with back pain on summer vacation -- to make your trip as painless, comfortable and stress-free as possible.

Let’s get started with some things you can do prior to your flight.

  1. Utilize Your Doctor
  2. As Haglandc of the Spine-health forum wonderfully points out, your doctor is one of your best advocates when preparing for a vacation. Here’s why.

    • A doctor may be able to provide a letter about your lower back pain to the airline and flight crew, which may then make accommodations for your needs. In the case of one forum member, that meant getting upgraded to business class, allowed to lay on the floor and rest during long flights, provided with a bunch of blankets for cushions, and afforded the opportunity to get up and walk around when others remained in their seats.
    • A doctor may provide you with prescription drugs like narcotics or muscle relaxants to help make the plane ride easier on your lower back pain. If this is the case, be sure to keep all of your prescription drugs in their original bottles (for airport security reasons) and bring a doctor’s note with you that specifies the medications you are on and the medical necessity.
  3. Contact the Airline
  4. Generally speaking, it usually cannot hurt to contact the airline a couple of weeks prior to the flight and let them know of your back pain. In the case of one forum member, speaking with the airline prior to flight made boarding much easier.

    • With a letter provided by a physical therapist, this passenger was allowed to bring on his Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) unit, a portable, pocket-sized device that blocks pain signals by sending electrical impulses to certain parts of the body, and go through security without have to take it off.

    You may be surprised that the airline may be able to make accommodations for your back pain, especially when you give them a decent notice of your condition. As just a couple of examples, the airline may be able to:

    • Provide you with medical attention (if necessary) via wheelchair assistance and early boarding
    • Have airline personnel carry your luggage for you and/or lift it into the overhead bin for you
    • Accommodate you with special shuttles and elevator platforms for boarding
    • Allow non-medical assistants to accompany you through security and boarding.
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  1. Put More Thought into Scheduling Your Flight
  2. Take into account how you can make your flight less stressful on your back rather than rushing to book tickets by:

    • Exploring the possibility of taking a flight when there will be less people on board and more room for you to lie down across seats.
    • Contacting the airline prior to scheduling a flight and let them know of your back pain. They may be able to provide you with more insight on when flights tend to be very crowded and much lighter.
    • Trying to limit the down time between in-flight connections or layovers, if applicable.

Now that you’ve done some work prior to your flight, here’s what you can do to curtail back pain during it.

  1. Bring Over-the-Counter Pain Medication
  2. Utilize over-the-counter pain medication like acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol) or NSAIDS ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin and Nuprin) or naproxen (Aleve), to provide back pain relief on your flight.

    • Take your pain medication one hour before your flight to give it time to get into your system.
    • Carry your pain medications together in a clear plastic bag and have them on you at all times, in case you need to resort to them during the flight.
    • Inform flight attendants that you are on medication. This way they can monitor you if necessary.
  3. Provide Support to Your Back While in the Air
  4. For lower back pain, providing support behind your lower back, often with a back roll or even a couple of pillows (which a flight attendant may be more than willing to give you), is a good way to prevent slouching that may lead to back pain and to keep your spine straight.

    • One forum member talked about how he brings a neck pillow on board to help with his neck pain.
    • Back braces, tube-shaped pillows with microfibers inside and other materials providing support are common companions of passengers with back pain and can be purchased inexpensively at many stores.
  5. Watch How You Are Sitting
  6. Airplane rides can be a bit tight and uncomfortable at times, especially if you’re not in a luxury class.

    • If your legs are not positioned at a right angle when you sit in an airplane seat, ask for something (pillows, blankets) to prop up your feet and keep your knees at a right angle. Doing so keeps stress off the lower back.
    • If you have long legs, request an exit row or bulkhead seat, which generally has more leg room.
  7. Get Up, Move & Stretch as much as possible
  8. Staying stationary for prolonged periods of time stresses the spine and can make back pain much worse.

    • See if there is room at the back of plane to do some quick stretching, which can provide more flexibility to the back and ease stiffness. Just be sure not to get up and move when there are jerking movements.
  9. Alternate between Heat and Ice
  10. Alternate every 15 minutes between heat therapy that can stretch the tissues around the spine and reduce the sending of pain signals, and ice treatment that can numb back swelling. Here’s what you can do:

    • Stock up on inexpensive heating options like ThermaCare heat wraps or warm gel packs and apply them while in the air.
    • Bring an empty hot water bottle and ask the flight attendant to fill it up during your flight.
    • Carry a small gel pack on the plane and have the flight attendant store it in the fridge when you are not using it.
    • Have a Ziploc bag on hand and ask the attendant to fill it up with ice that you can apply to your back.

    Of course, do not apply heat or ice directly to the skin and be sure to check in with the airline to see what items are acceptable to carry on.


  11. Relax and Try to Get Some Rest

  12. A long flight provides plenty of time to relax, with just some suggestions including:

    • Getting comfortable via a back or neck support, sitting properly or reclining your seat, and maybe even taking some pain medication prior to your flight
    • Breathing slowly (inhale deeply, count to five, exhale slowly and repeat 10 times) to relax your muscles and nerves
    • Listening to some soothing music on an iPod
    • Bringing a novel or some other reading materials that can stimulate your mind and divert your attention away from your back pain
    • Staring out at the clouds and scenery (if you have a window seat) and letting your mind drift
    • Thinking about your vacation destination and how long you’ve waited for this day.

Hopefully these tips will help and even spark some more ideas as you prepare to deal with your back pain on a vacation plane ride.

Thanks again to those forum members who provided ideas with how they’ve dealt with back pain on airplane rides in the past.

Feel free to provide us with any other tips that you feel may be helpful to others, and be sure to check in at the Spine-health blog for future tips on dealing with back pain during summer vacation.

Happy travels to you.

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Article written by: Staff Writer