Staying seated for prolonged periods, such as on a plane or long car trip, keeps the spine in a static posture that can put excess pressure on the muscles, joints, and intervertebral discs.1 The following tips cover specific ways to take care of the spine and reduce pain that arises from prolonged sitting.
Do A Posture Check
Poor posture stresses the spine when sitting for extended periods. Scanning the body regularly to make small but helpful adjustments can minimize strain on the spinal structures.
When checking posture, look for the following:
- Both feet are flat on a stable surface
- The inward curve of the lower back (the lumbar lordosis) is supported with the seat’s lumbar support or added support
- The lower back is pressed against the seatback or lumbar support
- Both ears are aligned over the shoulders without the chin jutting forward, and the shoulders are aligned over the hips, to avoid hunching the back
- A headrest supports the middle of the head and does not push the head forward
When driving, adjust the steering wheel and car seat to avoid leaning forward and slouching. When using commercial travel, adjust the seat as much as possible and bring extra support for the lower back, neck, and feet.
Seat Adjustments to Improve Back Support
On an airplane, train, or bus, the seat may need to be modified to provide the best possible support for the back and neck:
- Bring low back support. The seats on airplanes, buses, and cars cannot accommodate every body type, and many do not include adequate lumbar support. A lumbar pillow—or even a rolled-up jacket or blanket—can be placed behind the lower back to maintain healthy posture and minimize severe flare-ups of pain.
- Bring a neck pillow. U-shaped neck pillows are commonly available at shops in airports and train stations, as well as department stores. These pillows are designed to allow a passenger to sleep without bending the head too far to one side and straining the neck.
- Use a footrest. Proper back support requires bottom-up leverage from the feet, with both feet flat on the floor and the knees and hips bent at 90°. Place a bag under the feet if they cannot comfortably reach ground. When driving for long periods, use cruise control to keep feet flat, rather than keeping one leg extended forward to reach the gas pedal.
Not all seat adjustments will work for everyone. The important thing is to make sure that the seat is comfortable for the individual.
Apply Heat and Ice Therapy to the Lower Back and Neck
When sitting, simply applying heat or ice can reduce muscle and joint tension to alleviate back pain:
- Heat therapy. To reduce muscle and joint tension while sitting, use a heating pad or disposable handwarmers that heat up when shaken. Most disposable handwarmers and battery-operated heating pads are allowed in carry-on luggage when traveling by plane.2,3 Another alternative is an adhesive, long-lasting heat wrap that adheres to the neck or back that can provide continual, low-level heat for up to 6 hours. Check with current TSA guidelines and instructions provided by the airline for types of heat packs approved for air travel.
- Ice application. For travel-friendly ice therapy, keep a plastic bag handy that can be filled with ice from a soda fountain or drink cart. Applying ice can temporarily numb the painful area, including sharp, shooting nerve pain in the buttock and leg (sciatica).
To avoid skin damage, keep a layer of cloth between the heat/ice source and the skin, and do not apply for longer than 15 to 20 minutes.
Move as Much as Possible
As a general rule, the spine was meant to move, and keeping the spine mobile can reduce pain from static postures on long travel days.
- Take short, frequent walks to keep the muscles and joints active, preventing tension from building up in the lower back and hips. Get up and walk at least once an hour. When flying or traveling by train or bus, request an aisle seat in advance to make moving regularly easier and less disruptive to other passengers.
- Stretch the hamstrings by placing one foot in front of the body, such as on a seat in an airport or train station, and gently leaning forward until a stretch is felt in the back of the thigh. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds. Stretching the hamstrings can reduce muscle tension that pulls on the lower back and worsens back pain.4
- Do simple neck stretches by slowly bending the ear to the shoulder and holding for 15 to 30 seconds before repeating on the other side. This stretch alleviates muscle tension in the side of the neck down into the shoulder. Additionally, bend the head forward, pulling the chin toward the chest, to alleviate tension in the back of the neck.
See Neck Stretches
- Perform isometric exercises or contractions in the legs, hips, and trunk. For example, keep the core and leg muscles active by leaning the back against a wall in an airport or travel station and sliding the body down until the knees are bent at about 90°. Hold this position for 30 to 60 seconds to perform an isometric exercise. Alternatively, tense up the muscles in the abdomen for 30 seconds, without moving the back or torso, then release.
In addition to relieving muscle and joint tension, staying active on a long travel day has the benefit of improving circulation to the spine. Keeping healthy blood and nutrient flow to the back muscles, joints, and intervertebral discs helps the spine move more comfortably and can help reduce stiffness and pain that commonly develops when traveling.