Tips for Dealing with Back Pain While Flying
Long security lines, packed planes and ever shrinking airplane seats; there’s little doubt that flying can literally be a pain. Airline seats are designed more to maximize space on the plane and less for comfort. Our low backs have a natural curvature known as lordosis and when we sit, particularly in slouched forward position (ie the “C” position you see in economy seats), that natural curve is lost. Sitting in that cramped position for several hours is the perfect recipe for developing a sore back. When sitting is as bad for your health as smoking what can you do when you’re about to spend several hours seated in a plane for hours on end?
While my weekends are spent jetting off to Mexico City, exploring Iceland or showing you the best five-star resort on the Chesapeake Bay, I spend my weekdays as a physical therapist and it’s no surprise that back pain is one of the most common ailments I see. The World Health Organization estimated that the prevalence of back pain is as high as 60-70% in industrialized nations.Even as a physical therapist I am not immune to getting back pain while cruising at 35,000 feet, but I do know how to avoid it and manage it when it does happen. Here are my tips for dealing with back pain on a plane.
The following tips are meant as general guidelines and should not replace your doctor’s or physical therapist’s advice.
Before the flight
When it comes to comfort all airline seats are not created equal. Use SeatGuru to research seats on your particular flight. If it’s within your budget (or you have the points or miles) and you need more leg room consider upgrading to premium economy, business or first class.
The best defense is a good offense. Regular core strengthening and flexibility at home can help ward off back pain while traveling.
After clearing security most of us make a beeline for the gate or lounge, find a seat and camp out until the flight boards. Instead,walk around the airport prior to your flight.
During the flight
The simple fact is our bodies not meant to sit still for hours on end, we need to change position. Unless the fasten seat belt sign is on try to get up and stand, walk or stretch at least once per hour.
When you’re seated consider using lumbar support to promote the natural curve in your spine. This can be in the form of a lumbar pillow (I like this inflatable one) or a rolled up blanket or scarf.
Give these seated exercises a try- they’re easy to do and can be done discretely so you won’t bother your seatmate.
- Pelvic Tilt-sitting tall brace your abdominal muscles, rock your hips backward as you pull your bellybutton towards your spine and hold for 5 seconds maintaining a slow, steady breath. Slowly tilt your hips forward emphasizing your lower spine’s natural curve, hold for 5 seconds. Repeat several times.
- Ankle Pumps- with your feet flat on the floor raise your heels coming up onto your tip toes, then reverse the movement. Alternate with lifting your toes off the floor.
- Seated Marching- bracing your abdominal muscles with your knees at a 90 degree angle, slowly lift one leg up a few inches then return your foot to the floor. Alternate with the other leg.
- Mini Leg Circles- Straighten one leg out in front of you, brace your abdominals and tighten your top thigh muscle. Move your leg in a small circle ten times in a clockwise direction then 10 times in a counterclockwise direction. Repeat with the other leg.
- Backward Shoulder Rolls- slowly roll your shoulders backward and down, hold for 5 seconds and repeat 5-10 times.
- Shoulder Squeezes-squeeze both shoulder blades back and down, hold for 5 seconds and repeat 5-10 times.
When the fasten seat belt sign is off try getting up and performing some of these standing exercises ( and if the flight crew asks you to resume sitting please follow their instructions in order to avoid a situation like this guy who was removed from a flight after refusing to stop do yoga in the galley).
- Backbend-with your hands on your hips or holding onto a nearby seat, slowly arch your back slightly and hold for 5-10 seconds. Return to the starting position.
- Hip Flexor Stretch-Take a step ahead with one foot so you are in a staggered stance position. Bend the front knee and shift your weight forward while keeping the back heel flat and your posture tall. Hold for 10-20 seconds and repeat with the other leg.
- Lateral Trunk Stretch- Lift one arm up overhead and lean to the opposite side. Hold for 10-20 seconds and repeat on the opposite side.
After the flight
After a long flight resist the temptation to crash at your hotel. Get up and go for a short walk to get your blood flowing.
At your hotel you have a bit more freedom to stretch as you like. Follow a favorite yoga video or try this simple stretch. Laying flat on your back with your knees bent, slowly rotate your knees to the right until you feel a stretch in your left trunk and hip, hold for 20-30 seconds then repeat on the other side.
Splurge on a massage at your destination.
Take a dip in the hotel pool, the buoyancy of the water can help relax stiff back muscles.
How do you deal with back pain on a plane? Please share your tips in the comments!