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
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
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!