Well, it’s that wonderful time of year when school is letting out, the weather is getting beautiful and the days are much longer and brighter. For most people, the summer is an ideal time to get away from the grind of the 9-to-5 and take a vacation with family.
With money tighter and the economy what it is, more families vacationing this summer may decide to travel by car, which may not present the most ideal situation for people dealing with a history of lower back pain.
Still, lower back pain doesn’t have to throw a wrench in your summer travels. In fact, if you keep the following tips in mind, you may very well make your trip a comfortable one.
In the first installment of Spine-health’s summer series of tips for limiting back pain on vacation, we examine how you can “have the back” of your back during that long car ride to the destination of your dreams.
1. Cover Your Bases by Getting Comfortable Immediately.
Whether you’re going to be driving or sitting in a car on your vacation trip, chances are you’ll be in the vehicle for extended periods, likely hours at a time. While this may sound extremely basic, make sure you’re comfortable from the get go.
Unfortunately, not all cars include built-in lumbar support or other ergonomic features. With that said, here are some tips for making your car more ergonomically-friendly for your back.
- If your car seat provides little back support, roll up a towel, pillow or back support and place it between your lower back and seat for some more support. There are many different types of cushions and pillows (including but not limited to ones for sciatica, the neck, lumbar spine, bottom and full body) that you can also purchase to alleviate your back pain.
- Don’t sit on your wallet, cell phone or anything else that may throw your spine out of whack.
- Reduce reaching (which places more stress on the lumbar spine, neck, shoulder and wrists) by sitting as close to the steering wheel as possible without compromising your safety.
- Sit up straight with your knees slightly higher than your hips, and keep your chin pulled in.
- Since staying still is bad for your back, don’t just pick a position and stay in it. Rather, adjust your seat and make slight adjustments to your position every 15-20 minutes.
- Perhaps you’ll be renting a car for your vacation. If so, seek a car that provides lumbar support, is high enough for you to see past other vehicles without having to cringe your back and neck, and allows an easy way to get in and out without having to do much bending.
2. Bring a Small Cooler & Stack an Ice Pack.
Chances are you’ll already be bringing a small cooler with little snacks and beverages for yourself or the kids as you begin your vacation trek in the family car, so you might as well store a small ice pack in there as well.
Applying ice to where you’re experiencing back pain – most often for no more than 20 minutes – is typically a good way to curtail any pain.
As most back pain is accompanied by inflammation, ice therapy can slow back swelling, numb sore tissues, slow the nerve impulses in the affected area, and decrease tissue damage.
Just remember that you should never apply ice directly to the back, but should rather keep it in a towel or another protective barrier to avoid ice burn.
3. Alternate Ice with Heat Therapy via These Inexpensive Means.
Alternating ice and heat is often an effective way to combat back pain, so be sure to bring something that can provide some warmth to your back.
Since lower back pain typically develops from strains and over-exertions that place tension in the muscles and soft tissues around the lower spine, hence leading to a lack of proper circulation and the transmission of pain signals to the brain, heat therapy may reduce such signal calling and decrease stiffness by stretching the soft tissues around the spine.
Here are just a few options for how you can “light a fire” under your back during your summer vacation car ride.
- Right before you leave, fill up a hot water bottle that you can place on your back. Be sure to refill your water bottle when you make bathroom breaks at rest stops.
- While you’re preparing for your vacation by buying new clothes and snacks, be on the lookout for a heating pad with a car adapter that can simply plug into your vehicle’s cigarette lighter.
- If you have leather seats with heating power, turn this function on for a few minutes at a time.
- Gear up with other less expensive heating options, like warm gel packs and heat wraps. As an example, something like a ThermaCare heat wrap can be used to deliver low level heat to your back for several hours.
As you can see, there are plenty of affordable ways to provide heat therapy to your lower back pain. Just remember, that like ice packs, you should never apply heat directly to your skin.
4. Make Rest Stops So Much More – Utilize the Open Space for Back Exercises.
While this may seem counterintuitive, exercise is often a good treatment for lower back pain. Specifically, active back exercises keep discs, muscles, ligaments and joints healthy by distributing nutrients into the disc space and soft tissues in the back.
Now if you have been to one rest stop, you’ve likely been to them all. In addition to providing lovely facilities to use the rest room and being stocked full of vending machines where you can get some of the oldest coffee in the world, rest areas are typically known for having plenty of flowing, green space.
After taking care of business at the rest stop, be sure to utilize its open space by making it a point to do some back exercises, including stretching and working on your hamstrings (FYI: you should stretch your hamstrings twice a day when dealing with low back pain).
Even walking around a bit is a good way to stretch out the muscles.
Here are just some lower back pain exercises that may work for you (with that said, a physical therapist or spine professional can provide you with more back exercises).
If you have done back exercises in the past to curtail lower back pain, you’ll want to keep your routine, even when going on vacation, which is all about breaking routines.
Make it a point to spend a couple of minutes doing back exercises at a rest stop before getting back on the road with the Joads, and be sure to get to a stop every couple of hours.
5. Make Good Use of the Back Seat (if available).
If your back pain is proving unbearable and the back seat is available, use it to lie down and rest.
Simply lie down in the back seat (obviously when the car is parked and not moving) with your knees slightly bent. Put a blanket on the seat and rest a pillow under your head.
In simple terms, try to get as comfortable as possible and adjust your positioning when necessary.
6. Substitute Your Pain Medications with Tylenol, Ibuprofen or Naproxen.
Taking your pain medications is not advisable when driving. With that in mind, you can always alternate with over-the-counter pain relievers like Tylenol, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin and Nuprin) or naproxen (Aleve).
These NSAIDs or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are often effective in limiting inflammation associated with back pain and typically don't produce the gastrointestinal side effects of aspirin.
7. Sit Back, Relax and Rest.
There’s a reason why passenger seats recline. And there’s usually no better time to catch up on some sleep than during a long car ride.
If your lower back pain is nagging, taking a nap may be an effective way to limit the pain.
While sleeping in a car may be difficult for some people, most people are able to adapt and find a good way to nap and get some much needed refreshment and back pain relief.
Here are some general tips for doing so.
- Recline the passenger seat in a position that is most comfortable to you.
- Depending on how you feel and what you prefer, you may want to use a comfortable pillow to rest your head on and a back brace to support your back.
- Throw on a pair of headphones, simply stare out the window at the wonderful scenery passing by, and drift off into your own place of contentment.
Well, hopefully you find these tips helpful as you treat back pain during your summer vacation car ride.