With the summer holidays approaching some of us are planning to take the car over to France and drive down for a holiday. Back or neck pain can make driving miserable and a few people have already come to see me hoping to sort out their problems before they go. As well as the hands-on treatment osteopaths also offer advice on prevention and management. So here are a few of my tips if you are planning a long car journey.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of pain while driving. Discomfort that builds up during the journey may be due to muscular fatigue and joint compression. It should respond to frequent changes of position and rest breaks. However, if you are in acute pain it may be hard to find any position of comfort. Pressing on the pedals can hurt, and getting in and out of the car can be excruciating. In this situation you really should allow someone else to do the driving. If this is not possible, experiment with cushions and towels behind your pelvis to find the most comfortable angle, and try to stay there. Stick on cruise control and try not to fidget until its time to take a break.
How do you adjust your seat?
Unlike taking the ferry or the plane, when we drive we’re genuinely stuck in the chair for long periods. So we can’t get up and move around so easily. This forces us to think carefully about posture and seat set-up.
When you adjust the backrest make sure you feel support up the whole of your back. The backrest should normally be at a 100-110° angle. Anything steeper makes it hard to relax the back muscles. But anything flatter can put strain your neck when you look forward.
Slide your seat forwards or backwards so your arms and legs reach the wheel and pedals easily. A 90° angle at the elbow is normally about right. If you are too close, the muscles in the front of your arms and chest tighten up and you’ll tend not to breathe freely. If your arms are too stretched you have to hunch your shoulders and grip harder to keep hold of the wheel. Both of these can aggravate a sore neck.
Likewise, raise or lower the steering wheel so you can hold onto it without too much tension. Adjust the head rest so your head just touches the center of the cushion. The angle of the lower back and pelvis influences how you hold your head, so make sure they are right if you think you might get neck pain.
When you’re on the motorway find that footrest for your left foot and use it, this helps support the hips and pelvis.
What’s the best support for your back?
Some car seats have in-built lumbar supports that can be adjusted to suit your back. But if your car is not so fancy, or the seat is getting old, you may benefit from a lumbar support. This can be a cushion, a folded towel or a specialised lumbar support. You can buy the latter from Guardian Medical on Savile Street. But where do you benefit most from some support? Something like the McKensie lumbar roll will support you in the small of your back. Alternatively, have you tried propping up the back of your pelvis? As I type this I’m sitting on a wedge-shaped cushion (from Guardian Medical!), which tilts my pelvis forwards. This makes it easier to sit straight without having something pressing into my back. Seat wedges for the car are also available but you can experiment with a folded towel placed into the back of your car seat. On the other hand there’s something called a Gokale Stretchsit cushion. This helps lift your upper back, so the lower back gets a gentle stretch rather than be compressed for hours.
What role does stress play in my back or neck pain?
Whole books have been written about this topic! Being stressed increases any muscular tension. This can lead to pain via muscular fatigue or simply not moving the joints enough. Stress also affects the brain activity and hormone balance in a way that makes us more sensitive to existing pain. So this means that one of the best ways to reduce pain while driving is to reduce the stress and tension associated with the journey. A little planning can help make things easier. Plan to drive at periods when there will be less traffic. Allow enough time to make any connections without being worried about getting there on time. Check online for delays or traffic trouble before you set off. This site can be useful: https://www.autoroutes.fr/en/Realtime-traffic-information.htm
Get a Sat-Nav
I love maps and I have a fondness for a proper map. A map made of paper, which you can gaze over, plotting new routes and dreaming up adventures. But after a recent trip across France I would definitely recommend a Sat-Nav or whatever app works on your phone. For a start it reduces friction between you and your navigator! But it’s also convenient, and it can save the hassle and time of going the wrong way.
Notice if you’re tensing up
Driving in heavy traffic can make you tense your muscles up for hours without realising it. Just telling ourselves to relax doesn’t really work. Instead, become more aware of how you are holding yourself. Breathe more freely. Spare a moment to scan your body for tension. You can’t relax an area if you don’t know it’s tense in the first place. Focus on the feelings in that area and ask yourself if you really need to hold those muscles so tight. Often the spotlight of your attention is enough to let them ease off.
Your body hates being still, it keeps strain on the same structures for too long, the nerves become more sensitive, its bad for circulation. While you’re driving you can roll your shoulders and tilt your head from side to side without taking your eyes off the road.
But the best solution is to take frequent breaks. If you’re driving in France there’s always a rest area after the paege. This is perfect for a loo break and some stretches (you’ve had to stop to pay already so why not make the most of it?).
What exercises should you do when you take a break from driving?
The basic principle is- do the opposite of what you’ve just been doing. So first of all, move. Just moving in any way will be good at first: walk around, swing your arms, take some deep breaths. In the sitting position almost all the joints are flexed, so to do the opposite of this: extend your joints. This could involve:
- walking on your toes,
- straightening your knees in some hamstring stretches,
- lunges to open out the front of your hips,
- backward bends for your lumbar spine,
- twisting movements for your upper back,
- shoulder circles and squeezing your shoulders back to open out the chest,
- neck rolls.
I hope this helps and you have a great holiday!