photo of couple on vacation in europe

Travel Hacks to Manage Back and Neck Pain

It’s finally May… which means that vacation season is almost here! 10-hour flights to Europe and cross-country trips to stunning national parks are just around the corner. But, for people who suffer from chronic neck or lower back pain, planning for vacation can seem like a logistical nightmare.

Even if you don’t suffer from claustrophobia, planes, cars, and tour buses can feel cramped. And, they don’t exactly allow for much movement, either. (Even if you have all the wiggle room afforded by first class!) So, how can you get the most out of your travel experience, without throwing your back into a 3-day spasm that hijacks your vacation plans?

Our experts will give you their top tips for managing neck and back pain while traveling by plane or car.

Expert Advice for Airplane Travel with Neck & Back Pain

  1. Contact the Airline. Before you book your tickets, contact your selected airline to discuss accommodations for neck and back pain. If necessary, have your medical provider write you a note before your call so you can furnish documentation of your condition. Don’t hesitate to make use of the following services (offered by most major airlines) if you need them:
    • Wheelchair service on and off the plane
    • Shuttle service between terminals
    • Assistance lifting or transporting luggage
    • Gate passes to allow non-flying family members to assist you in reaching your gate
    • Approval to carry medical devices, like your TENS unit, through security
  2. Opt for Roomy. If you have the economic means to upgrade your tickets to economy plus or business class, then consider doing so for long flights. Your neck and back will thank you. If you can’t, ask a flight attendant or an airline employee if you can receive a complimentary upgrade. (Unfortunately, this only works when extra seats are available…) Also, you might want to consider switching your seats to the back row. Although these seats often don’t recline, they also are less likely to book… Which means that you could luck out with an entire row to yourself to stretch out or lie down.
  3. Pack Light. The most common acute back or neck injuries on vacation result from improperly lifting heavy luggage. Instead, attempt to pack light or divide your luggage into several small bags instead of one large duffle. Don’t rush to grab your carry on items out of overhead bins at the end of the flight! Twisting the wrong way with your arms above your head is a recipe for disaster. Instead, slowly remove luggage in stages. Move your suitcase from the overhead bin, onto your seat, and then the floor. (Or, ask your flight attendant for assistance with removing your items.) And, remember that overhead items often shift around during flight. Unlatch overhead bins carefully to avoid sustaining a head or neck injury from falling luggage.
  4. Pack Right. With that being said, don’t skimp on packing equipment or items that you need to minimize your back pain. Consider packing the following:
    • An empty ziploc bag (You can ask your flight attendant to fill this with ice if you need to ice your back during the flight)
    • TSA-approved heat wraps, like ThermaCare (Check with your individual airline beforehand to ensure that these are allowed. Policies often vary from airport to airport and airline to airline)
    • OTC or prescription medications for neck and back pain
    • Lumbar support or horseshoe pillows to support your back and neck, respectively
    • Pillows or blankets to prop your knees up to a 90 degree angle, if you have shorter legs
  5. Stretch. If you don’t feel too self-conscious, then attempt to stretch at least every hour. There is often extra space near the back of the plane by the bathrooms where you can stretch your hamstrings without other passengers noticing. Moving around will help you prevent muscle spasms and aches, as well as avoid developing blood clots in the legs (a rare complication of long air travel).
  6. Stay Hydrated. Planes are low-humidity environments that encourage dehydration. To prevent muscle pain, buy a gigantic bottle of water once you pass through security and attempt to drink often while in flight.

Expert Advice for Car Travel with Neck & Back Pain

  1. Watch Your Posture. Elevate your seat just enough that your knees fall in line with your hips. (This will take the pressure off of your lumbar spine and prevent sciatica flare-ups.) In addition, your upper arm should form a 120-degree bend with your forearm at your elbow. Paying attention to your elbow position can actually take the strain off of your shoulder and neck muscles and prevent tension headaches.
  2. Beef Up Your Lumbar Support System. In newer cars, most seats come equipped with built-in lumbar support. However, we all require different support needs and one size doesn’t necessarily fit all. Experiment with lumbar cushions, rolled-up towels, and adjustable seat attachments until you find the best fit for your back. Remember that the bottom of your lumbar support cushion should rest against your belt-line and should not force you to hunch forward
  3. Plan Out Your Stops. If you have time, plan out semi-frequent stops along your wayand force yourself to stretch. Studies show that even 1 minute of stretching is better than no stretching at all. That’s because movement encourages blood flow and prevents stiffness, aches, and muscle spasms.
  4. Plan For Pain. Don’t forget to pack pain essentials like OTC medications, ice, and heat packs. If possible, try to take medication at least an hour before you hit the road. Sometimes, staying ahead of pain is the best tactic when it comes to long travel!

When all else fails, don’t forget to consult with your doctor before your trip. A board-certified orthopedic spine surgeon can help you diagnose the source of your pain and offer suggestions for pain relief. You may have an underlying condition, like degenerative disc disease or a herniated disc, that requires treatment to resolve. If you see your doctor well in advance of your travel date, you may just be in tip top shape by the time that your vacation rolls around!

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