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.

 

Medical Disclaimer

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.

Check out this post for more great tips to make flying easier.

How do you deal with back pain on a plane? Please share your tips in the comments!

 

 

49 Comments on “Tips for Dealing with Back Pain While Flying

  1. I could have used this for my flight back from Barcelona last month! Excellent information! I’ve got it bookmarked for my next trip.

  2. Ahhh a pool sounds amazing right now. I want nothing more than to feel buoyant! Anyway I’ve been experiencing more back pain that usual due to this whole pregnancy thing, so these tips are super helpful!

  3. I (knock on wood) have not had to deal with this but my first husband had lots of problems. I feel for anyone who has to deal with this – you offered great tips!

  4. Hello Brianna, you have shared great tips for dealing with back pain. I was searching the remedies for this. I always used to fight back with pain while travelling. These tips are so helpful for me. Thanks for sharing such a beneficial tips.

    • Eddie, I’m glad you find these tips helpful. Happy travels!

    • Back pain is never fun Pilar. Here’s to a pain free flight to Madrid!

  5. I’m bookmarking this for my 13 hour flight to London! I’m prone to back pain anyways because my posture sucks so this is useful!

    • Posture is something we all need to work on but every little bit helps.

  6. Oh these are such great tips! My husband and I always have back pain when we travel and i love the idea of those inflatable pillows! Will need to check them out!

  7. I usually get up and walk a couple of times. Didn’t realize it would be possible to stretch and relax a bit. I must try them out in long flights next.

  8. Thankfully, I don’t have back pain. But I do have the issue where my feet swell up horribly, even with propping them up and getting up and moving around on the flight. I do some of these exercises you’ve mentioned to also help combat that. Our bodies are just not meant to be crammed in to tiny plane seats for so long!
    Jennifer recently posted…5 Reasons to Skip the Beach in Mahé, SeychellesMy Profile

    • Jennifer, get some compression socks. I love the pairs by Sockwell and won’t fly without them.

  9. Back pain is one of the reasons why I hate flying long distance. Fantastic post on ways to deal with it when flying! I will need to try your in-flight exercise!!

  10. Love this advice. I injured my back last year and haven’t traveled much since as I get nervous about how to handle potential back issues. I’ll try some of these moves on my trip to Vancouver next month!

    • I hope you arrive in Vancouver pain free and ready to explore!

  11. Some good tips. Thanks for sharing and it’s really important – for me, I do need regular stretching and exercises to make sure a good blood circulation; besides, pay attention to your posture and never hold a pose for too long! @ knycx.journeying

  12. I try to remain active on a plane but more often than not I end up in the middle seat and therefore feel real self-conscious about asking to move to doing exercises. I do complete the heel- exercise you mention but perhaps I need to try some of the others also as I really do struggle to get comfortable especially on long haul flights.

    • I’m a fellow middle seater, I feel your pain (pun intended).

  13. Great tips, especially on long trips on the plane. I like the idea of walking after you get to the destination or splurging on a little back massage.

  14. These exercises will come in so handy when I fly to Bali in the summer (it’s the longest trip I’ve ever done), thank you! I don’t tend to suffer from back pain usually but I’ve never flown this far before so I think it’s always useful to know the techniques. I try to get out of my seat for a walk around every one to two hours just to stretch out.
    Melissa Jones recently posted…Comment on Top 10 things to do in Kefalonia by Janine RussellMy Profile

    • Have fun in Bali, I can’t wait to hear about your adventures!

  15. Love this, Brianna. Perfect tips from the PT point of view. I do a lot of stretching on airplanes and in boarding lounges too.

  16. Thank you for this! I am lucky to generally have a healthy back. But 10 hours in a cramped space even get to me. Totally agree that the best thing you can always do for your body is to walk. I also believe in stretching as much as you possibly can. When you get up, find a space where you can extend your arms in the air without hitting your hands on the ceiling and streeeeetch. Then lean forward and touch the ground, rotating in your hips (rather than bending your back), slowing coming back up by uncoiling your back. Finally, squat down, get up, squat,…

    Happy & healthy continued travels!
    C

  17. Those are great tips. I never actually think about that, till I get home complaining how uncomfortable I was! Thanks

  18. Hello Brianna, Most of the people are unable to enjoy their holiday due to back pain problem. Your tips is the best treatment to solve all kind of body pain problem. Enjoy flying without pain with this tips. Thanks for sharing this blog.

  19. Ultimate list of tips. I am planning an international trip and these tips going to very very useful for me. Thanks for great share.

  20. Long-haul flight can be a real pain in the back. This is due to uncomfortable seating and being confined to a small space. Some stretching routines can help me but most of the time, when I travel, I always ask for an advice from my osteopath in Farnham. He suggests tailor fit solutions for me to avoid back pain when traveling.

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