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Does Travel Cause You Back Pain? Here's How to Avoid It...

by Dr Mark Wiley(more info)

listed in back pain, originally published in issue 162 - September 2009

The old saying goes: "Vacations are fun, but travelling is a pain in the neck!" Actually, travelling can be an even bigger pain in the back.
The stress of making plans, packing the essentials, getting to the airport on time, waiting to check in and the whole security scenario really pack a tough one-two psychological punch to the low back.
Then there's the physical stress and strain of lifting bags, dragging them through the parking lots and airport, carrying all those over-stuffed carry-ons with gifts and paperbacks.
But the number one complaint by plain, train and automobile travellers – when describing the onset of their back pain – is sitting for too long. Airplanes and even trains advertise that their seats were ergonomically designed by specialists to properly support the low back and neck during travel. But I know the ones I sit in feel horrible. And it's not only me... people complain about them all the time, and their continuous pain gives them fair reason.

Break the Cycle of Pain
Luckily, the pain associated with travel can be greatly reduced, and in many cases avoided, with these simple tips:
  • To reduce stress-induced muscle cramping and pain in the neck, shoulders and low back, it is advisable to plan your trip well in advance, pack two days before, load suitcases in the car the night before, use online check-in to reserve your seat, and check your bags at the curb. These seemingly little things can reduce the stress and anxiety of rushing around, waiting in lines, and dragging bags. If planned and executed well, the low back pain associated with stress can be avoided;
  • Only pack what is absolutely necessary for your carry on. Each family member gets one carry on, plus a purse (for ladies). To avoid the neck and shoulder strain of lugging these around, and of trying to place them into and remove them from the overhead compartment, the lighter the better;
  • The poor seating designs of most travel vehicles cause back pain, due to incorrect support of the spine, and forward pitching of the shoulders. To avoid this, always bring a small pillow, or use one that is offered and place it behind your low back or neck for support. If I can't find an in-flight pillow to use, I will roll up my jacket or even the in-flight magazines, and use them as supports. Seated posture is so important for preventing strain to the spine, and pain to the neck, shoulders and low back that by whatever means... find and use a support;
  • Be sure to remain well hydrated during your travel time. One of the most basic, yet common causes of pain is dehydration. Not having enough fluid in the body to keep the body cool, the blood moving, the muscles supple and the tendons relaxed. Not only must you drink plenty of water, but you must also avoid coffee, tea and soda during travel, as these all cause you to sweat, urinate... to dehydrate;
  • If you are taking a long drive, train ride or flight, be sure to get up and move every hour. Simply standing up for a few minutes and doing some light stretching, twisting or bending will help keep you limber, relaxed and the blood moving in and out of the muscles. And when the blood does not move or moves too slowly, the muscles and tendons become tight and painful!
  • And lastly, be sure that when lifting bags, holding children and reaching for items, that you plant your feet flat for support and bend from the knees. Incorrect lifting or over-reaching for items is one of the most common causes of back pain... and one of the easiest to avoid.
Travel does not have to be as stressful or painful as many of us make it out to be. If we plan well, execute well and take care of our bodies while in transit... the trip will be painless. And what better way to relax on vacation or arrive on business after travel, than stress free, hydrated, supple and... pain free!


Travell Janet and Simons David. The Trigger Point Manual. Lippincott Williams and Wilkins. 1998.
Greg Fors. Why We Hurt: A Complete Physical & Spiritual Guide to Healing Your Chronic Pain. Llewellyn Publications. 2007.


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About Dr Mark Wiley

Dr Mark Wiley is Editorial Manager at The Healthy Back Institute. For more FREE back pain articles and videos, go to

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