Spending long hours in a plane, train, bus, or car can really take its toll on your body, particularly your back and neck.
Sitting in one position—or in multiple, unnatural positions—for long stretches of time puts a lot of stress on the body. Your muscles and tendons can tighten up, you could develop painful muscle spasms, and you can become more vulnerable to injury.
The good news is that you can avoid a lot of trip-related pain and injuries with a few simple, preventive strategies. Here’s what you need to know:
If You’re Going by Car, Train, or Bus
- Maintain your back curve.Many seats—car seats in particular—don’t offer much in the way of lumbar (lower back) support. Whether you’re the driver or a passenger, help keep your back happy by placing a support cushion behind your lower back. A jacket or sweater, rolled up lengthwise, can also do the job.
- Keep your natural neck curve, too.If you’ll be sitting for more than an hour, place an inflatable travel pillow behind your neck. If you don’t have one, roll a jacket or blanket to a few inches in diameter and place it behind your neck, lengthwise. (You can try this in your hotel, too, if the pillows aren’t as comfortable as you’d like.)
- Support your legs.If you’re a passenger, it’s much easier on your back to position your legs at a 90-degree bend or slightly higher. Prop up your feet on small suitcase or other item to move your knees into a higher, more comfortable position. It’s also helpful to recline your seat just slightly.
- Think “9 and 3″ rather than “10 and 2.”While you may have learned to drive with your hands in the “10 and 2″ clock position on the steering wheel, your neck and shoulder muscles can relax if you lower your hand positions a bit. The American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association recommends this lower hand position to help keep your arms out of the way of an inflating airbag; even “8 and 4” can be a comfortable choice.
- Start out slowly after sitting.Your back muscles may be weaker and more susceptible to injury after you’ve been sedentary for several hours. If you’ve been driving for hours, or sitting on a long train or bus ride, move gently and slowly when you first stand up. Do a few simple stretches, and avoid sudden, strong movements until you’ve moved around for a few minutes.
If You’re Going by Airplane
Many of the tips described above also apply when you’re traveling by air. However, here are a few additional ideas for managing safely in that space:
- Avoid drafty air on your neck. Cold air on your neck can cause your muscles to tighten up and spasm. Don’t aim the cool-air nozzle right at your neck (off to the side or in front of your body is better).
- Protect your neck position. Are you carrying a heavy shoulder/carry-on bag? If so, switch your carrying positions from time to time, suggests EverydayHealth.com. It’s common to lean your neck away from the bag-carrying shoulder, which can strain your muscles over time. Your neck will also thank you for propping up your book or tablet on a pillow or folded-up jacket. Your neck will remain straighter than it would if you were leaning down to view your book or screen in your lap.
- Try pushing, instead of pulling, your suitcase. It may be easier on your arm, shoulder, and neck muscles to push your rolling suitcase in front of you. Visualize pushing a shopping cart, but perhaps with only one hand.
- Lift your luggage slowly. It’s safer for your back if you lift your luggage in “stages,” rather than all at once, suggests the American Occupational Therapy Association. For instance, after you get on the plane, lift your luggage first to the seat cushion. Take a moment, then lift the case up and rest it on the seat back. From there, carefully lift the bag into the overhead bin. And don’t hesitate to ask for help if you need it. Many passengers are happy to assist, since it helps move you out of their way more quickly.
- Pack lighter. It may seem obvious, but take time to edit your packed items if you know you’ll have trouble carrying them. Swap heavy books for digital ones on your e-reader, phone, or tablet. Be sure you’re not packing too many pairs of shoes. Pack layers instead of a heavy coat. Travel experts like Rick Steves or Anne McAlpin can offer more tips.
- Keep moving. On long plane trips, plan to get up to briefly stretch your legs, back, and neck. You may feel less awkward if you tell your seatmates and/or the attendant in advance that you’re prone to neck and back issues and need to get up regularly. If at all possible, reserve an aisle seat so you don’t inconvenience the people around you.
- Stretch in your seat. If the seat belt light is on for extended periods of time, or you can’t get up because the meal/beverage service is in progress, do some simple stretches in your seat. Bend forward gently at your waist, do slow neck rolls from side to side, shrug or roll your shoulders, and alternately flex and point your toes.
Individually, these suggestions may sound simple—and they are. However, when you combine several of these tips, they can go a long way toward helping keep your back and neck healthy and happy while you travel.
READ MORE: Traveling? Are You Covered by Insurance?