According to the National Institutes of Health, pain affects more Americans than diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined and pain is cited as the most common reason Americans access the health care system.
Debilitating, disabling pain leaves you unable to work, to go out with friends or to conduct your daily activities.
But what about pain that isn’t disabling? What do you do when you still have to sit through an all-day meeting, load suitcases in and out of a trunk, squeeze into economy class on a transcontinental flight or drive for hours on end?
All of the accommodations you’ve learned to make for your chronic pain around the house and in your daily routine go out the window when you’re traveling – especially if you’re not entirely in control of your own plans. But pain management on the go isn’t hard; it just requires a little forethought.
Picking up luggage
You know that old saying “put your back into it?” Don’t. Lift your suitcase with your legs, not with your back. If you’ve had back pain for years, you may have already trained yourself to instinctively pick up heavy objects using your legs. For most people though, it’s not second-nature. If you automatically reach down and grab your suitcase (or anything else) without thinking about it, you’re probably using your back and that’s not good for anyone – chronic back pain or not. Before you pick up your luggage, stop for just a second and think, then direct your legs to do the work by squatting down a little to lift. Eventually, you’ll probably do it correctly without having to stop and think first.
Of course the easiest answer on airplanes is to book business class but those seats are financially out of reach for most of us. If you can, take a look at the smaller upgrades – called “premium economy” or “economy plus” on some airlines, to see how much extra legroom will cost. Be aware that some of the upgrades allow you to choose seats closer to the front of the plain, but don’t offer more legroom. Read the print carefully to be sure that if you’re paying for extra legroom, you’re actually getting it.
Regardless of which seat you’re in, practice good posture when you’re sitting in it. Sit all the way back against the seat and keep your head back against the headrest; don’t tilt your head forward or slump. And get out of your seat and move around as often as possible.
Also remember to stop and think before you lift your luggage into that overhead compartment. Lift with your legs, not with your back! And if you think you might need help then you probably do. Ask a flight attendant or the person boarding behind you to help you lift your bag.
And if you’re on a long flight, wear compression socks – your pilot and flight attendants probably are. Compression socks stimulate circulation, helping to give your legs the blood flow and stimulation that they’re missing out on when you sit still for long periods of time. You can get them at most drug stores but if you’re fashion conscious or just turned off by industrial beige, buy them on the Internet instead; compression socks are trendy among athletes and travelers now so it’s easy to find a thousand fun colors and patterns online.
All of the good-posture recommendations for flying also apply to driving; except that you’ve got a lot more control over your seat when you’re driving. Adjust your seat so that you can sit all the way back in it — don’t leave any space between your lower back and the back of the seat but don’t inflate the seat so that your back is arched. And set your headrest so that your head is straight, not tilted forward.
If your legs ache while you’re driving – especially the right leg, which has to hover by the gas and brake pedals – move your seat forward more. If your right leg has to reach even the slightest bit to reach the pedals, you’re too far back. Also check the height of your seat – if your legs are hurting, adjust the seat height so that your hips are slightly above your knees. And after you’ve put your seat in position, don’t forget to adjust the steering wheel accordingly.
No one likes long meetings but for people with back pain, they’re agony. The best defense against a long meeting is good posture – and bathroom breaks. First, pay attention to your posture. Don’t put your head forward or lean forward – concentrate on keeping your ears aligned with your shoulders and your shoulders aligned with your hips. Ideally, your hips should be slightly higher than your knees and your feet should be flat on the floor.
Then, stand up as frequently as you can. Take bathroom breaks if there’s no other way to get out. Once you’re out, take a minute to do your regular stretching routine. And if it’s possible for you to leave your seat but stay in the room, just stand against the wall with your back straight for a few minutes.
I’ve written elsewhere about a stretching routine you can do while you’re grocery shopping and the same holds true for walking in general. Some types of back pain hurt the most when you’re walking, so activities like grocery shopping – or maybe walking a few blocks from your hotel to a meeting site – can be hard. In either case, don’t try to be done as fast as possible. Instead, when it starts to hurt, find a place to sit – a bus stop or a park bench if you’re traveling – and do a seated forward flexion stretch.
Sit upright normally with your legs spread. Bend forward and down towards your feet as far as possible with your arms stretched outwards. You should feel it in your back and in your legs. Hold it for 10 seconds, then sit up, then repeat. Do it a total of it five times, holding for 10 seconds each time. Then finish your walk. If it starts to hurt again, stop and do it again – it takes less than a minute so just build a few extra minutes into your travel time so you can take a stretching break once or twice.
In your hotel
Whatever stretching routine your physical therapist has provided is probably something you can do in your hotel room. Just don’t forget to do it! Often when we’re on the road, we neglect our nutrition, exercise and other health routines. Don’t! Make sure you keep up with your stretches, even in a different environment.
If you haven’t got a stretching routine, now is a good time to start one. Before you get out of your hotel bed, lie on your back, bring one knee up to your chest and hold it there for 20 seconds. Then do the same with the other knee. Do each side three times, holding it for 20 seconds each time. Then when you get home, make an appointment with a physical therapist.
On your next trip
Even when it’s fun and exciting, traveling is hard on your body. But if you spend a little time pre-planning before you go, and a few minutes here and there adjusting your posture and stretching while you travel, you can save yourself a world of hurt.
Stephanie Musselman heads up the physical therapy department at Integrative Pain Specialists. Licensed in the Commonwealth of Virginia, Stephanie earned her BS degree in Kinesiology from Shenandoah University in 2000. She then attended Virginia Commonwealth University Medical College of VA, and in 2003, received her Doctorate of Physical Therapy.