Updated: Sep 24, 2019
Traveling by plane, train or automobile provides us with fun new adventures and memories but sometimes can also lead to painful irritation of the neck or back. As a chiropractor, I hear about these aches quite often and have put together some helpful tools to prevent back pain when traveling. The body is loaded under more stress when we are traveling between carrying heavy bags and sitting for long periods. Often, we are forced into a poor posture by the seats we sit in on the plane or in a car, so the trick is to add support and prevent muscle tension.
Let’s start out first with sitting and the need for some extra lumbar (lower back) support.
Whatever mode of transportation you are taking, the seats can sometimes have inadequate lower back support which forces your lower back to round into a slouched “C” shaped position. This shape puts more strain on the muscles of the lower back as well as the discs and joints of the spine. Preferably, the lower back should be upright with a slight back bend. This position puts less stress on the spine and thus less muscle tension. So, when we are in one of those seats that cause us to round, we can regain that ideal lower back position by adding in lumbar support. If you do not have a travel lumbar support cushion there is an easy way to hack this. The trick I do is to use a jacket, sweatshirt or scarf as my lumbar support. I am a big fan of scarves when I travel for temperature reasons as well as for this purpose. You can easily stow a jacket of sorts in your carry-on or personal item, making sure you always have something to use if you feel you need the extra lower back support. Place the jacket or scarf at the lower lumbar spine just above the tailbone. In other words, just above the waistline of your pants. You can adjust the amount of support by folding or unfolding the jacket.
Takes breaks to stretch whenever possible.
When we are sitting for long periods your muscles can begin to tighten up and the joints can stiffen. When possible, take the time to get up and move around to restore joint mobility and blood flow. Doing movements such as these can help prevent stiffness which can help prevent pain.
1. Lunges for hip flexor stretch: Stand with bent left knee and right leg extended straight behind you into a lunge position. You should feel a stretch into the right front of the hip. For a deep stretch into the poses, you can raise the right arm overhead. You should feel the stretch deep in the front of the right hip. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the left side. Do these three times on each side.
2. Hamstring stretch: standing with both feet on the ground and legs straight, bend forward and allow the arms to hang towards the floor. You should feel this in the back of the thighs. For a deeper stretch, you can grasp behind the legs and pull gently. Hold for 30 seconds, doing three sets total.
3. Pec stretch: Lock your hands together behind your back and push your hands backward, whilst pushing your chest forwards. Roll your shoulders back and down as you feel the stretch over the front of your chest and shoulders. Hold for 30 seconds, doing three sets total.
4. Leg swings: Stand on one foot with the other foot raised off the floor. Make sure your toes are pointing forwards. Swing your raised leg back and forth like a pendulum (forward and backward) whilst maintaining your balance and keeping your body straight. Do this for a count of ten swings. Keeping the same leg raised translate the movement into a forward sweeping motion moving the leg from side to side in front of your body (left side to right side). Do this for a count of ten swings and switch to the other side. You should feel the movement into your hip socket.
If you don’t have the ability to get up to stretch, you can do these stretches when sitting down.
1. Upper trap stretch: tilt your head to the right, bringing your right ear to the right shoulder. You should feel a stretch at the left shoulder top. To get a deeper stretch you can place your right hand on the left side of your head and pull gently. You can also sit on your left hand during the stretch. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the left side. Do these three times on each side.
2. Levator Scap stretch: bring your chin towards your right collarbone, like you are looking at your right armpit. You should feel the stretch at the top of your left shoulder blade and left upper neck. To get a deeper stretch you can place your right hand behind the left ear and the base of the skull, then pull gently. You can also sit on your left hand during the stretch. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the left side. Do these three times on each side.
3. Piriformis stretch: bend your right knee, open the right hip out to the side and place your right foot on top of your left knee. Lean forward whilst keeping the back straight. You should feel the stretch in the right glute region. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the left side. Do these three times on each side.
Travel with a lacrosse ball.
This small tool is a very handy way to work on tight muscles. I bring the lacrosse ball in my carryon so I can use it even when sitting on a plane if I need to. Otherwise, I make sure to take it out when I have arrived at my destination. The main theme of this tool is to “search and destroy”. Meaning you get to decide where to focus the massage tool, based on where you are feeling the most muscle tension. The pressure applied to the ball should not go beyond “hurts good” and should never cause sharp pain or nerve like pain. Avoid rolling over any bony parts on the body, such as the spine. Here are a few ways you can use the lacrosse ball for some self-massage therapy.
1. Against the wall: This is the best way to get to those tight lower and upper back muscles. To work on the muscles in the upper back and along the shoulder blades, place the ball between your back and a wall. One area that is commonly tight in the upper back is between the shoulder blades. Place the ball in the space between the shoulder blades and the spine and lean against the wall. Move the ball and “massage” the area by squatting up and down by three inches. The same movement you see when a bear is scratching their back against a tree. You can also move the ball side to side by rotating your upper body right and left. Move the ball three inches below or above the area you were at and continue. You can even apply a steady pressure into an area or a knot that is more sensitive. Move the lacrosse ball down to the lower back and focus on the muscles that run parallel to the spine. You can massage the entire back within a ten-minute time period.
2. On the floor: This is the best way to get into the hips, legs or deeper pressure in the back.
a. For the upper back – Laying on your back, take a ball and lie with your upper shoulder muscle on top of it. Rotate your arm around in circles with the pressure of the ball in your muscle. When you hit a particularly tender spot, hold it here.
b. For the lower back - Place the ball on the floor and then lie onto the ball, positioning it on either side of your spine in your lower back. With your hips raised off the floor, use your feet to roll your body up and down over the ball. When you feel a tight, tender spot, hold this position until you feel the pressure release.
c. For the calves - Sit on the floor with one leg straight out and a ball underneath the same calf. Move your leg so that the ball moves around your calf. If you feel any particularly tender spots, hold the ball in this position applying some pressure until it releases.
d. For the hips - Lay down on the floor on your stomach. Place the ball above the tops of your thighs, in the crease of your hip. Make sure to avoid the front hip bone. Start rolling up and down to find the most painful location. Once you have identified the source of the pain, contract your buttock muscles and point your foot. Hold for 20-30 seconds and feel the area of discomfort softening.
e. For the glutes - Place a ball on the floor. Cross the leg to be stretched over the opposite knee and place the ball under your buttock. Roll over the ball until you reach a tender point deep in the gluteus muscles, and then hold this position.
3. Sitting: In a seated position place the ball under the glutes, in the area that is most bothersome. Apply your body weight into the area and maintain this steady pressure as the muscle releases. This steady pressure technique is used for trigger points in the glutes and has come in handy when sitting on a plane or in the car and you don’t have the ability to move around. You can also apply the same technique with the ball against the back of the chair to release tension in the back area. Put the ball behind your back and lean into against the back of the chair. Maintain steady pressure as the muscle releases.
I love to travel. I am always excited to visit new places and spend time with friends and family. I use all these tips whenever I am traveling. I hope you add these tips to your travel routines to maintain a happy and healthy lifestyle.