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Back Pain While Flying - How to Avoid It!

Back Pain While Flying - How to Avoid It!

Since I've been spending quite a bit of time on airplanes lately, and with the Labor Day holiday approaching, the first thing that came to my mind while writing an article for the Athletic Edge blog, was back pain while flying, and how to avoid it.  Even with all of the major airports in the Bay Area (San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland), there are still long flights, connections, delays, and uncomfortable seats.

Lower back pain is prevalent among our society. Eighty percent of the population will experience a debilitating episode of back pain sometime in their life, with the most common cause being mechanical (joint or muscle related). Your body faces daily stresses and can accumulate to the point where you develop symptoms, i.e. pain!  Regular maintenance massage care will help to reduce daily stresses and can serve as a preventative measure to back pain. But it helps too if we take precautionary measures especially while traveling. Dragging around heavy luggage, slouching in airport chairs and sitting for long flights can turn a trip into a pain. The spine was designed to move, not sit still for hours in planes or cars.

Even though flying is notorious for exacerbating back problems, there are a few steps that you can take to surviving long flights.

Primarily, the preparation work should begin at home, before you even go to the airport.  If you suffer from any kind of back pain, try to pack as lightly as possible.  Having to carry a lot of heavy luggage is a very easy way to re-injure your back.  Even after you've finished packing, double-check to make sure that there aren't any items that you've packed that you can't do without for a few days.  Use your entire body to turn when lifting heavy luggage. Pivot with your foot, not your back, so that the whole body moves rather than twisting your spine.

Although we all hate baggage fees, once you get to the airport, try to check in all of your bags. Southwest, which flies out of all Bay Area airports, will still allow you to check bags without fees. A small carry-on is fine, as long as you won't have to store it in the overhead bin during your flight(s). The process of putting a bag in an overhead bin is extremely dangerous to one's back, as is the process of retrieving the bag at the end of the flight.

Additionally, if you're stuck in the economy seats, try to either get an exit row or an aisle seat during the flight.  Aisle seats will give you more wiggle room and more freedom, and exit row seats will give you more leg room.  If you feel your back tightening up while on the flight, walk up and down the aisle a few times.  Stretch and move around every 20 to 30 minutes, or at least every hour or two.  Walk to the back of the plane, do heel raises, side-bend stretching, and marching in place can reduce stiff muscles and help curb inflammation. Consider bringing a doctor's note and alert the flight crew prior to boarding that you have a back condition, and may need to move about more often than other passengers.

Try to book a flight for a time of day when the plane is more likely to be on the empty side.  If there are any empty rows, ask to be moved to one so that you can lie down across the seats - this will help to keep the pressure off your back.

Use good posture.  Airline seats are not made for correct posture, or to keep you from being in pain, they are made to fit as many people on the plane as possible. The airline seats often force your lower back into an unnatural, stressful position. Bring a back roll or pillow to put behind your back to keep your spine straight and prevent slouching. This will alleviate pain and pressure from your back.  If you're on the shorter side, bring something that you can use to prop up your feet, so that you can keep your knees and hips at a right angle.

Bring gel packs that can be heated or frozen (I would recommend one of each).  These are great for treating swelling, sore muscles, back pain, and even headaches.  Make sure to have a doctor's note for your back condition in case airport security gives you any issues with the gel pack (if they are over the 3 oz. limit). Medically necessary items over the 3 oz limit are permitted through the security checkpoint, but you will need a note from your doctor.


If you are really prone to back pain during flights, be proactive.  I would recommend getting a massage within 24 hours before any long flight, and if possible, again after your flight. If you have chronic back pain, you might want to see your doctor and have them prescribe a pain reliever before getting on the plane. OTC pain killers like acetaminophen and NSAIDs, or prescription drugs like narcotics or muscle relaxants, can help take the edge off during and after the flight.  Again, a letter from you doctor stating your need for any prescription pain medications will help with possible airport security issues, and always be sure to keep medications in their original bottles.

Also, drinking a lot of water before and during your flight can help your body to stay hydrated, and keep the oxygen circling throughout your different muscle groups.


I've thrown my back out... Now what?!?  Ice the site of the injury as soon as possible.  Apply ice for 15-20 minutes.  The reason that ice is better than heat in this situation, is that it constricts the blood vessels and limits the amount of blood flowing into the site of the injury. This will help to reduce swelling and pain at the site, ice will also serve to numb the area.  After several days of ice application, you can start to use heat to help heal the area.


So, next time you're about to travel, keep the above points in mind.  Safe and happy travels!