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Effective Tips for Curtailing Back Pain on Airplanes

cmaynardccmaynard Posts: 4
edited 06/11/2012 - 8:32 AM in Lower Back Pain
Hi Forum Members,

this is Chris with Spine-Health.

I need your help.

I am looking to do an article for the site detailing some tips on how to deal with back pain while on plane rides.

This article will be a part of a summer series of articles on the site about how to deal with back pain while going on summer vacation.

For example, I am currently wrapping up an article on dealing with back pain during long car rides to summer vacation destinations.

I figured I open up this topic to the forums and hear firsthand what tips you guys have.

Please share what has worked for you in the past, in terms of dealing with back pain on airplanes.

I appreciate as many suggestions as possible and would love to incorporate the really strong and unique tips into this article.

Thanks so much and I'm looking forward to hear what you have to say.

-- Chris


  • What do you do if you can't sit? I had surgery, and still can't sit, and its been 5 months! I was looking at flying, but don't know what to do. sweetpotatoe57
  • Excellent idea! I have put in many hours in the air since hurting myself. I have had to fly back to the states multiple times over the past several years for surgery and treatment.

    First off the doctor is one of your best advocates for flying, especially if it is a long flight, say anything over 3 or 4 hours. If the doc provides a letter to the airline or flight crew they can accommodate you to the best of their abilities. I've had flight crews move me to Business Class, make a space on the floor for me to lay down during the flight, provide me a bunch of the First Class blankets as cushions and allow me to get up and walk when they normally ask you to remain in your seats.

    The doctor has also prescribed medication for the flight and for a few days after the flight to allow things to calm down. The key is, to talk to the doc about it, otherwise they won't think about it on their own. You have to be your own advocate there. Along with that, I let the flight crew know when I am heavily medicated and they help keep an eye on me and even help with watching the time for me so I don't sleep through a medication schedule or get confused due to time and date changes during the flight.

    I have also had my Physical Therapist provide me with a TENS unit and a letter stating it is required for pain management. This letter allowed me to go through security without needing to remove the unit and also forewarned the flight crew that it was a medical device and not something nefarious that would frighten them in the post 9-11 security concerns.

    Music. I use my iPod as a way to help distract my mind from the pain and discomfort.

    The flights I have had to endure are from a southern Japanese island back and forth to Washington DC. 7667 flying miles. It's a 30 hour trip when you factor in the flights, connections and drives to and from the airports on both ends.

    Also when necessary I have requested medical assistance from the airline at the time of scheduling the flights. This comes in the form of wheel chair assistance and early boarding of all flights. Assistance is also provided so I am not required to lift any carry on baggage. Also if I am flying with a non-medical attendant the airline will allow that person to accompany me with early boarding and through security. At some airports this also includes special shuttles and boarding via elevated platform instead of climbing a set of stairs into the aircraft.

    Basically, as long as I prepare for the trip, I can make it as tolerable as possible and reduce the risk of DVT during a trip especially if I'm recently post op. The airlines and flight crews appreciate when a spine patient goes through the trouble of preparing for the travel. If a person waits until they are boarding the flight or already on it before asking for assistance, the crew is not as prepared to help. If they know ahead of time that they have a passenger that will need assistance, they can adjust to accommodate.

    It's tremendously crucial to make sure that all meds are carried with and in accordance with TSA standards. Also I find that a small notepad used to record when medications are taken, helps tremendously when medicated with narcotics or benzos.

    I've made this trip for lumbar surgery, cervical surgery and twice for SCS implant surgery. The worst has actually been with the SCS since the IPG is located in an area that is pressed upon by the seats, even in Business or First Class. For traveling with an SCS, I found I had to go to wearing loose fitting cargo pants or loose fitting khakis. Otherwise the pressure on the IPG becomes too much and the edge of it will dig in and create pain and inflammation.

    Also be prepared for a manual search at security. This last trip back I had a security guard go overboard trying to figure out if my IPG was implanted or hiding under my clothes. I was at the verge of telling her to back off because she kept pushing it and I was afraid she was going to flip it in the pocket.

    Also the airlines allow for medical equipment to be carried on in addition to normal carry on luggage. So when I travel now, I carry my recharging equipment in addition to my normal carry on. I place all my meds inside the tote that this all comes in. It would be an expensive mistake if I were to check my charging equipment in my normal luggage and it were to be lost.

    So bottom line, a little preparation goes a long way to making air travel a bit more tolerable for a person with spine issues.

  • Hi Paulgla, SweetPotatoe57 and HaglandC,

    I just wanted to say thanks for your help with this article.

    This was published about two weeks ago -- this slipped my mind.

    Here is the link if you want to check out.


    have a great weekend.

  • dilaurodilauro ConnecticutPosts: 9,846
    Hi Chris, sounds like you have a great idea. So many people with spinal problems ask what can they do when they fly. I've had 7 spinal surgeries (3 Cervical and 4 Lumbar) plus I have 4 herniated thoracic discs.

    When ever I fly more than 1 hour flight time, this is how I prepare:

    Seat Assignment
    The best choice assuming one can pay for it is to sit in first class. This will provide you with ample leg room and you would be able to get up easily.
    My next option would have seats on the bunk walls.
    No one in front of you so have plenty of leg room.
    If nothing like that is available, I then select the last row of seats. This way I can get up anytime I want and walk around. On a recent flight to Chicago, I think I spent over an hour standing, walking and stretching.

    Bring all your medications and bring them in a carry on. I would never recommended checking in any of your medications. What I have I needed the most was
    muscle relaxers. I take this more as a preventive action. On longer flights (> 6 hours) I also take
    some type of sleeping aid (ie Ambien or Lunasta)
    You should always carry you prescription medications in their original container. Do not mix pills in one container to save space. If you were checked by security and they saw multiple pills in one container they will question and challenge you on that. You will see that more on international flights, but its good sound advice to keep the pills where they belong

    Spinal patients have to remember that comfort is more important than style.
    So I suggest wearing loose clothing. Sweat pants and shirt. Parachute pants, etc. Any clothing that you know sitting for long periods of time you will be comfortable. On our flight to Italy last Fall,
    I wore parachute pants, sweatshirt and crocs for my feet.

    Most Important.. You need to get up and walk and stretch for at least 5 minutes every hour. That will help in preventing potential spasms or other uncomfortable situations.

    Also bring your own neck pillow. I am sure the ones you use at home are more comfortable than what the airlines provide. Bring you IPOD. Loaded up with songs it can help make the flight more enjoyable.
    Pack along a couple of those 1 time use Ice packs.
    You might not need it, but it is surely a good suggestion just in case.
    Depending on how much of a spinal problem a person may have, they should contact the airlines prior to flight date. As haglandc mention there are a number of actions an Airlines can take (ie Wheel Chair, early boarding, luggage assistance, seating assignments, etc)

    Taking a flight can be a bit scary for a spinal patient. I would never suggest flying (unless it was an emergency) at least 4-6 weeks post surgery.
    That is just my opinion, patients should always contact their doctor to explain the flight plans and see if the doctor approves or disapproves that

    Anyone that has metal installed some where in the spinal area need not worry about setting of any alarms at the airport security check in. The titanium
    metal will not set it of, just as it is safe to have MRI's with titanium hardware
    Ron DiLauro Spine-Health System Administrator
    I am not a medical professional. I comment on personal experiences
    You can email me at: rdilauro@veritashealth.com
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