How to avoid back pain during travel

As I’m writing this, it’s the holiday season, which means time catching up with friends and family, great food, gifts…and…travel.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Thanksgiving. I’m always grateful to be able to go home and see my family, but I haaa-aaaate getting on a plane during this time of year.

If you’ve ever been to the airport between November and January, you probably don’t need me to explain why.

It usually involves a clusterf*ck of waking up at the crack of dawn, standing in crazy lines and then waiting for your plane to actually board, which can sometimes be hours after the original boarding time.

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My fiance and I before we found out our flight was delayed for 2 hours. Poor dude was responsible for taking all the photos too!

And that’s before you even get on the plane. From there, you’re crammed into a tiny seat for the next two to six hours. By the time you get off, you’re cranky, stressed and probably experiencing some serious low back or neck stiffness. #superfun #amIRight?

I get it. I’ve totally been there. And while I can’t do anything about flight delays or lack of leg room, I can show you how to avoid back pain during travel.

Why does flying cause neck and low back pain?

This has a long technical answer, but it’s mostly because the seats aren’t ergonomically friendly.

They’re bucket shaped (lower in the back of the seat and higher at the front – like a reverse mullet), which locks you into a slouchy posture, creating compression on the neck and low back.

Beyond that, when you sit you create imbalance in the front and back side of your body. The front side becomes shortened and overly toned (hence why so many of us have “tight” hip flexors and pecs) and backside becomes restricted and loses tone from being compressed into the chair.

What can you do to avoid back pain during travel?

It comes down to two major things – propping your chair so you can sit with better posture during the flight and moving more before and during the flight.

How to make your airplane seat more comfortable

As I said before, airplane seats are bucket shaped and the fix is quite simple.

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Bucket seat “before”

Get a small, flat pillow, towel or blanket to “debucketfy” the bucket.

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Bucket seat “after.” I folded the towel to be a little higher at the deepest part of the bucket to neutralize it.

A note on this one from personal experience…

Towels work well for propping your seat from a biomechanics standpoint, but they’re hard on your rear end. I’m 4 hours into my flight and my neck and low back feel way better than they would without the towel, but my booty is a little sore from sitting on it.

Next time, I’ll definitely be bringing a small blanket or pillow to use instead!

6 easy stretches you can do at the airport to avoid back pain during travel

You know you’re going to be stuck on the plane, so when you’re waiting in the airport, don’t just sit there.

If you’re not overloaded with bags, walk around.

If you don’t want to drag your gear (I feel ya!) find an open space and start stretching some of those areas that you know are going to be affected from sitting.

Now I don’t mind being the weird person rolling around on the ground, but I know that most people won’t want to do that. I also tend to travel with a mini Pilates studio in my carry-on, which confuses the heck out of TSA.

With this in mind, I’ve created a stretching routine that only uses a towel and doesn’t require getting on the floor.

I tested it in the airport during and it worked well.

Calf Stretch

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  1. Roll up a large bath towel and place the ball of your right foot on it. Make sure that your right heel is on the ground.
  1. Walk your left foot forward until you feel a stretch in your right calf.
  1. Maintain an upright posture with equal weight through both feet. Hold the stretch for three to five focused breaths and repeat second side.

Hamstring Stretch

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  1. Roll up a large bath towel and set it up about a foot from a wall or chair.
  1. Place the balls of both feet onto the towel with your heels on the ground.
  1. Keeping your knees straight and your back neutral, lean forward until you feel a stretch down the back of both legs. You can use the wall or chair for balance.
  1. Hold the stretch for three to five focused breaths.

Seated Upper Back Extension

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  1. Take a seat at the front edge of your chair, centering your weight over your sits bones and bringing your hands behind your head.
  1. Bring your hands behind your head, push your feet into the floor and feel how it lengthens your spine and activates your core.
  1. Start to gently lean back until you feel a slight activation in your upper back. Your lower back and hips should stay fairly still through the motion.
  1. Return to your starting position. Perform up to eight repetitions.

Seated Twist

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  1. Find a seated position near the front edge of your chair. Check that your ribs are stacked over your hips and your weight is settled over your sits bones.
  1. Reach one arm forward as you bend and pull the other elbow back with oppositional energy.
  1. Breathe into your twist and repeat second side.

Hip Flexor Stretch

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  1. Start standing with your left hand on a chair for balance. Step your right leg behind you.
  1. Soften your knees and gently tuck your pelvis forward, until you feel a stretch down your right hip flexor.
  1. To increase the stretch, reach your right arm overhead and side bend to the left.

Standing Upper Back Stretch

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  1. Place your hands on a chair and walk your feet out until your back is parallel with the floor and your feet are under your hips.
  1. Feel the length through your whole spine and breathe into any stuck or tight places for three to five focused breaths.

Additional Tips for Traveling

While you’re on the plane, if the fasten seatbelt sign is off, walk up and down the aisles. This will help decrease stiffness and mitigate the problems that come with sitting.

When you get off the plane, if you have time, take a moment and stretch again.

My final tip is to stay well hydrated. Sitting causes dehydration of the tissues, so taking frequent sips of water will set you up to keep your body maintain (quite literally) fluid movement!

The reality is that there is only so much we can do when we’re on a plane. However, being proactive can make the experience a lot more pleasant, so you can enjoy your trip and worry less about how stiff or achy you feel.

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