Whether it’s a holiday getaway or vacation excursion, traveling with back pain is no fun. The prospect of hours sitting in a car or on an airplane – not to mention hauling heavy luggage around – can be daunting.
Tips for traveling with lower back pain
Before you board the plane or get behind the wheel, consider these potentially back-saving strategies.
- Support your spine. Place a small pillow, or rolled up jacket, sweater, or blanket behind your lower back; consider carrying a thin seat cushion and use a neck pillow to keep your spine in alignment. There are an array of options out there, so read reviews, like this one from the New York Times.
- Plant your feet. If your feet don’t reach the floor in a plane, find a footrest or something solid to prop them on, which can help reduce back pain while flying. For long drives, consider using cruise control so you can rest both feet on the floor. If you’re the passenger, put a small box under your feet if needed. And it up straight! Slouching and hunching your shoulders puts additional stress on the spine. If you’re not already in the habit of sitting up straight, check your posture every 15 minutes to ensure you are not causing additional strain on your spine.
- Move. Whenever possible, get up, stretch, and move around. If you’re in a plane, try to get up every 20-30 minutes to at least stand, or preferably walk up and down the aisle. If you’re driving, consider planning breaks to get out of the car every 1-2 hours, if possible. If you can’t get up, consider light stretches to move your spine.
- Manage stress. Like nearly everything in life, stress can make back pain worse. Practice mindfulness or deep breathing if you’re feeling stressed during your travels. Planning ahead also can help reduce stress.
- Bring cold packs and heat packs. Alternating ice and heat can be great for reducing back pain while traveling. Ice can reduce inflammation and heat is effective in increasing blood flow, which is helpful for chronic pain. Packs that use chemicals to activate cooling or heating are especially convenient for travel.
- Avoid text neck. Text neck can occur when you are looking down at your phone or computer for too long. Raising your phone up to eye level can be as simple as sticking it in a plastic sandwich bag or buying a seatback phone holder! Check out social media for plenty of homemade hacks to keep your neck in line.
- Plan around peak traffic. Time your travel to work to your advantage. Try not to be on the road during rush hour or heavy times of traffic when you could get stuck “standing still” for hours. To minimize back pain while flying, consider avoiding the busiest travel days, long lines, and traffic. Screening precheck programs also can help you can get through security lines faster.
- Ask for support. Whether at the airport or hotel, there are many guest services supports available for people who are traveling with back pain. If your pain is intense, consider requesting a wheelchair at the airport. And don’t be shy to have the hotel help with your luggage or put you near an elevator if that might make managing your back pain easier.
- Check your bag. Don’t skip checking a bag to save a few dollars or a few minutes at baggage claim, or your back will pay. Once you check your suitcase, use a wheeled small carry-on or, if you’re using a backpack, keep it light AND carry it over BOTH shoulders (extra points for using a waist belt).
- Use over-the-counter pain medication. After checking with your primary care provider to ensure you don’t have any liver or kidney issues, don’t forget to pack extra ibuprofen and/or acetaminophen (whichever works best for you or alternate) and use before your trip and throughout to help manage pain. Drink plenty of water to help your body process the medication — which also helps ward off travel-related constipation, which also can cause low-back pain.
Traveling with lower back pain means incorporating all of these tips into your routine, from sitting up straight to supporting your lower back and from moving to considering ice or heat. When used in combination, these tips can ensure that back pain and flying don’t go hand in hand.
Tips for minimizing back pain travel with luggage
Before you walk out the door, packing lightly can be the key to minimizing your back pain while traveling. Consider packing only the essentials you need for a trip. Many of us tend to overpack, which can mean we’re hauling around heavy luggage for no advantage at all. If you need to bring a lot of things with you, pack a few smaller bags rather than one large one so you aren’t straining your back to lift a heavy suitcase. If you’re flying, plan to check the heavier items and only take on board essentials so you’re not carrying around extra weight while you’re navigating the airport or the airplane.
Once you arrive, take care lifting and carrying luggage. Some techniques that can help prevent back strain include:
- Bend at the knees and use your legs – never your back – when lifting.
- Avoid twisting the lower back while lifting; instead, pivot with your feet.
- Carry heavy items as close to the body as possible. Look for luggage that has four wheels so that you can keep it beside you rather than dragging it behind.
- Distribute weight evenly on each side of the body.
- We recommend carrying a backpack but if you have to carry a shoulder bag, switch sides often.
General travel tips
No one likes to have a great trip and come home with back pain that travels or an illness or injury. During cold and flu season, consider wearing a mask. Pack some hand sanitizer to use during your travels, and consider bringing disinfectant wipes to clean things like airplane seat trays and armrests. Always wash your hands before eating or touching your face.
Also, for your overall health, not just your back health, be sure to check out travel tips from the CDC.
If you’re suffering from chronic back or neck pain that prevents you from traveling, short-term or permanent pain management procedures could help.
More on Back and Neck Pain
- Why Does My Back Hurt When I Wake Up? Understanding and Addressing Morning Back Pain
- Is Cracking Your Neck Bad? Understanding the Potential Risks and Benefits
- Should I see a physician assistant vs doctor for my back pain treatment?
- When to Go to the ER for Back Pain
- A Guide to Lower Back Pain Self Care
- The Best Way to Treat Back and Neck Pain