It’s nearly time for the summer holidays! Are you looking forward to going away but worried how to deal with your back or neck pain? Its not unusual for people to contact me just before they travel, so I’ve put together a few ideas that might make life easier when you’re on the road (or in the air!).
Preparation: before the journey
Contact the airline in advance to explain that you have a condition. You may be given extra help or even allocated better seats. A letter from your doctor (or osteopath!) can help strengthen your case.
Try to book an aisle seat so you can stretch your legs, or get out of your seat more easily.
If you have the option, consider traveling at a quieter time so there’s less hanging around in queues and more space to stretch out. For example, Condor always gets really crowded at the start of the holidays.
If you often need pain-killers make sure you have a supply in your hand baggage (packed in a clear plastic bag if you’re flying).
Buy special cushions, ear plugs, heat/cold packs in advance and try them out (see below) beforehand.
Arrive in good time so you don’t have to hurry. Stress and worry make pain worse- who needs that?!
If you think you could benefit from some treatment, don’t leave it till the last minute. I don’t want you to be the one that calls me saying “My back’s been hurting for weeks and now its suddenly got really bad… I can’t sit or stand still for more than 5 minutes and I’m flying to Australia tomorrow… can you help…?!”
During the journey…
How should I sit with a bad back?
Whether you’re taking a plane trip, the ferry to Portsmouth, or a drive through France, you need to put some thought into your seating.
Bring your favourite cushion, or a folded towel (which may be more versatile as the journey goes on). Some people need a cushion to go behind their lower back (eg a McKensie roll). On the other hand there’s something called a Gokale Stretchsit cushion which helps lift your upper back, so that the lower back gets a gentle stretch rather than be compressed for hours.
Play around with the adjustments on an airline seat to find a comfortable angle. For car seats, see the blog on driving for more advice.
Heat and/or cold can help a sore back. You could buy heating pads to slip behind you. Or take a hot water bottle and ask the flight attendant to fill it up, or a cooling gel pack and ask them to put it in the fridge for you.
Wear trousers that don’t slip on plastic airplane seats (have you ever found yourself sliding down a chair like a blob of melting ice cream? Its so annoying!).
What about sitting with a sore neck?
The angle of your spine governs how the head and neck are held. If you slump, the neck bends backwards more. If you sit bolt upright, the neck is also held straighter. You can use this to reduce pain if your neck has a preference for bending forwards or backwards.
Some people like the U-shaped neck pillows for sleeping in aeroplane seats. It’s best to buy these in advance and experiment to see what works for you. In my experience the cheaper, inflatable ones don’t work very well. People with long slender necks may struggle to get comfortable with any option. But I would definitely recommend having a look at the J-pillow travel pillow. This was designed by an ex-air-hostess who saw people struggling to sleep. It has three prongs, which gives it mores ways to stop your head dropping forward or lolling to the side.
It’s nice to maintain good posture but let’s face it, your muscles are bound to fatigue at some point. And then they’ll start to hurt. It sounds like heresy, but just don’t worry if you can’t keep perfect posture. It’s much better to squirm and wiggle: the best posture is the next posture! Its fine to slump or sit twisted for a while if it feels more comfortable, just don’t hold it for too long. Some planes have a foot bar under the chair in front of you, placing your feet on it can make sitting up straight easier.
More important than some mythical perfect posture is how tense you are. So notice if you’re tensing up. Driving in heavy traffic can make you tense your muscles up for hours without realising it. So can getting annoyed at the passenger next to you or worrying about the next stage of the journey. 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.
Worrying about pain can be worse than the pain itself. Take your mind off it by doing something you enjoy: reading, listening to music or a podcast, watching a film, daydreaming about your destination. The brain can’t process all the sensory information that reaches it, so distracting yourself is a good strategy for coping with pain.
It might sound strange, but take ear plugs or good-quality headphones. Short-haul airplanes can be surprisingly noisy- its just one more stress that creeps in unconsciously, and shutting it out can help you relax.
How do I stay mobile?
Your body hates being still, it keeps strain on the same structures for too long, the nerves become more sensitive, its bad for circulation. Ideally you should get out of your seat every 20-30 minutes. If you’re on the ferry you can get up easily and wander around the deck. Planes can be more cramped but you can normally find a little space at the back. If you’re driving in France there’s always a rest area after the peage, which is perfect for a loo break and some stretches (you’ve had to slow down already so why not make the most of it?).
If you can’t get up, you can still do some exercises in your chair. Neck rolls and shoulder rolls shouldn’t annoy your neighbour too much. You can turn your ankles in and out, or rotate them in circles. Or do a walking movement with your feet: lifting your heels then lifting your toes is great for keeping the blood moving through your calf muscles. For your back, you could sit up straight and fold your arms, then twist from side to side. There are other exercises on my blog on sitting, which you could also try.
Waiting in queues may be boring but its also a good opportunity to move. Try some surreptitious ankle circles, hip circles, shoulder rolls, and turning your head from side to side. Don’t worry about looking silly- everyone else is looking on their phone not at you, and even if they are, you’ll never see them again!