Most people with back pain dread getting on a plane. Carrying luggage and sitting in a confined space for a prolonged period can aggravate back and neck pain. In my osteopathic practice one of the most common complaints I hear from my patients is flying.
Here are some tips to make your flight a bit more comfortable and a pleasant experience:
People often strain their backs when carrying and lifting heavy bags, so try to pack light or at least spread the load into a couple of lightweight cases that have wheels for ease of movement. You will have to lift your case sometimes so I recommend that you move slowly and protect your back by holding your tummy muscles in. Break the action down to a number of smaller movements instead of one big movement. So, instead of lifting your bag directly from the floor and swinging it into the overhead compartment, it can first be lifted onto the seat, then carefully balanced on the back of the chair and finally lifted into the overhead compartment.
Airplane seats are small and uncomfortable and don’t provide enough support for the back and neck. When you get into your seat make sure that your hips are pushed all the way back and that you are really bending at the hips so you are sitting on the backs of your thighs. Avoid sitting halfway on the seat and slumping over.
I often see people using a pillow in the lumbar arch of their back, if this works for you then that’s great. However, I suggest placing the pillow up and down along the spine to see what works best for you; this will vary depending on your height. As a rule avoid filling the lumbar spine, instead try placing the pillow across the middle of your back and flex at the chest and think of hooking your upper back over the top of the pillow. Once the plane is in the air and your seat is reclining this will feel even better because this will hold you upright and you won’t be slumping!
If the pillow doesn’t suit you try taking a scarf, jacket or blanket and place it behind your back under your shoulder blades with the long ends of the scarf either side of your torso. Bend and flex your chest forward and hook your upper back over the top of the scarf, then gently tuck the ends of the scarf in a horseshoe shape along the length of your spine. This will offer less support for your back than the pillow but it may work better for your back. Use an inflatable neck pillow to support the weight of your head when you fall asleep.
You can also reduce some of the stress to your spine by ensuring your feet are placed on a firm surface while sitting. Resting your feet on a footrest or a bag to keep your knees at a 90-degree angle and flexing your hips will open and decompress the spinal joints and nerves and therefore relieve the low back.
Sitting in one position for a long time tends to stiffen the muscles and joints. Moving around will stimulate blood circulation bringing oxygen and nutrition to the joints and muscles of your body preventing stiffening and aching. Get up, stretch and move around every 30 minutes, consider booking an aisle seat so that you don’t disturb fellow passengers. Moving around regularly will also prevent DVT (blood clots) from forming in your legs, which is one of the most dangerous risks associated with long haul flights.
The speediest way to get relief is applying alternating ice and heat for 10 minutes each to the affected area. Ice is usually easily accessible on an airplane, simply fill a plastic bag and place it between your lower back and the seat. Use a heat wrap intermittently as prolonged heat can contribute to swelling so alternate with ice.
Plan ahead and book yourself in for a treatment with a registered osteopath 48 hours before your flight. Releasing stiff joints and tight muscles beforehand will help make you comfortable and ultimately make your journey more pleasurable.