Flying & Back Pain - help?
March 25, 2011 3:40 AM   Subscribe

How can I avoid lower back pain after long flights? And in general, how can I make long flights more tolerable?

The last couple of times I've flown long distances (~11-12 hour flights) the next day I end up with pretty bad lower back pain that sticks around for a few days to a week. I'd really like to avoid this. Anyone else experienced this? What can I do to prevent it?

Also, it seems I'm stuck with frequent long distance flying for the next couple of years. Any tips for making this process less painful in general would be much appreciated.
posted by kms to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Are you tall or short (because I think the causes of back pain on flights may vary depending on the answer)? I am short, so for me the lower back pain is often because I can't put my feet flat on the floor properly. I much prefer airlines with footrests - but sometimes just use my bag or something else. If you are tall.. well, I can imagine that sitting slightly angled because of your jammed knees could do that, but I don't have the experience in that area!

Other tips - be mindful of what you are carrying around airports. If you don't have a wheeled carry-on, think about a backpack or seriously reduce what you are carrying. Anything else seems to end in pain related to dragging a heavy bag around on the shoulder awkwardly.

Aisle seats do mean you get woken to let someone else get up, but mean you can get up and stretch more often.

Don't eat too much on flights - research shows that there is less problem with jetlag if you don't eat on the flight and then eat on arrival. My personal data says this is true - but I do carry a few snacks (although as much for entertainment as being hungry).

Earplugs (or noise cancelling headphones) do reduce how fatigued I feel by flying. I wear earplugs all the time now when flying, even short haul domestic.

Being dehydrated gives me joint pains, so the usual stuff about keeping hydrated on flights is good. If you don't want to be up and down to the toilet the whole time, at least spend the day before getting well hydrated, so that you don't start dehydrated.

If possible, I have a long hot bath on arrival, to relax and soothe muscles.
posted by AnnaRat at 4:02 AM on March 25, 2011

Oh, and I haven't tried a lumbur support pillow (there are travel versions), but that may help too.
posted by AnnaRat at 4:04 AM on March 25, 2011

A good hour or so of yoga right before you board. Just do it right in the boarding area, bring your own mat or towel, nobody really notices and nobody cares if they do. Also consider not having a carry on of any real size. I really messed up my back with a combination of long flight and then the pull and twist motion of pulling a heavy bag from the over head followed by that awkward way you have to hold the bag in front of you with one arm as you debark.
posted by InkaLomax at 4:20 AM on March 25, 2011

Yes, even if you feel silly a good thirty minute series of stretching before, walks and stretching during, and thirty minutes of stretching after. It's the only thing that helps for me.

I do try to shift position while sitting, too -- you probably do that already, just from the discomfort.
posted by lillygog at 4:59 AM on March 25, 2011

Posture is really important. I use the pillow you get onbaord as a lumbar support and take my own neck support (one of those horse-shoe shaped pillows) and I keep this on throughout the flight. Find some good neck stretches and arm exercises that you can do sitting down or that don't need much space. Most airlines seem to have these in the back of their inflight magazines. Also consider seeing a physical therapist while you have the post-flight pain, as they may well be able to advise on some further preventative measures.
posted by londonmark at 5:30 AM on March 25, 2011

Lemme second InkaLomax's recommendation of yoga - either just before you board or as a practice integrated into your regular life, if your life has the space for it. It's amazing how many of my lower back problems just vanished after I started doing yoga - back problems that included terrible pain after long sits. Even a couple sun salutations before your flights would make a world of difference, seriously.
posted by EatTheWeak at 6:13 AM on March 25, 2011

I usually use the pillow or blanket they give you as a lumbar support.
posted by cabingirl at 6:46 AM on March 25, 2011

Every half an hour I go to the lavatory (or an open bulkhead area if available) and bend over to touch my toes for 10 to 15 seconds.

I also try not to unconsciously twist my body away from the person I'm sitting next to. (Personal space is great, but planes just aren't designed for it, and I'll be a more pleasant seatmate anyway if my back isn't tense by the end of the flight.)
posted by ocherdraco at 7:09 AM on March 25, 2011

I stay up the entire night before, and just sleep my way through almost every flight, usually after doffing a muscle relaxant and a decongestant. And sometimes a bourbon.

I just did this yesterday, in fact, and the entire 6-hour flight was only about 20 minutes in personal time. The rest was bliss, and I woke up on touchdown, alert and relaxed thanks to the untangling drug.

(Okay, maybe this isn't for everyone, but it's worked for me for a decade now.)
posted by rokusan at 7:12 AM on March 25, 2011

I'm a big fan of the TravelRest pillow. Those pillows that wrap around your neck never worked for me.
posted by athomas24 at 9:12 AM on March 25, 2011

2nd EatTheWeek
upping core stenght is the key for most back pain issues.
posted by kristymcj at 9:17 AM on March 25, 2011

I used to use the in-flight pillows for lumbar support, but they seem to be disappearing as the airlines try to save money. Now I just make sure to bring something of my own that will work for this purpose. An extra sweater or sweatshirt that you won't need to stay warm on the plane is easy to carry on your body without using up half your carry-on space (pro-tip - take it off before you board, when you still have room to move your arms around!). A small pillow or fleece blanket stuffed into your carry-on works too.

Watch your body mechanics when hauling luggage, too. If you're moving something into or out of the overhead bin, you want to be facing it squarely and reaching directly in front of you, which people often ignore because the aisle is crowded. You don't want to be standing diagonally in the aisle where there's not enough room to fit sideways due to the other passengers. You certainly don't want to be reaching for a bag that's over the row behind or in front of you. And for goodness sake, don't try to curl your arm up around the bulkhead to pull out a bag you know is there, when you're still crouched in the middle seat waiting for the aisle-seat guy to move. For that matter, if you can't stand up fully while waiting to disembark, just stay seated until it's your row's turn. I'm amazed at how many people are in a rush to stand like hunchbacks above the nice comfy window seat when it's clearly going to be 5-10 minutes before their row can go anywhere.

When you're pulling or picking up a bag, don't jerk it -- that jerks your body, too. Aim for smooth starts and stops. And if you're picking anything up off the floor, obviously lift with your legs instead of your back.
posted by vytae at 10:13 AM on March 25, 2011

Work on your abs when you are not flying.

Get up and stand, and get up and walk, whenever you can during your flight.

Stretch before and after the flight.

And, if you are tall, choose a bulkhead seat or an exit row to give you room to stretch out.
posted by misha at 10:35 AM on March 25, 2011

I was going to say everything Misha just said.

for abs/core strength, I'd recommend taking up pilates, though yoga would work well too. and also practice your posture when you're sitting. if you learn to sit with your core muscles properly engaged, then the weight of your body will be better distributed and that should be the end of your back pain. (if you don't have a clue what I'm talking about, this is the sort of thing that you will learn from yoga and pilates.)
posted by spindle at 11:54 AM on March 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding posture. I used to have terrible back pain sitting in one place until I realized I wasn't sitting on my ass, but on a sort of curved spine/tailbone/hip thing. Solution: shove my ass as far back in the seat as I can. Spine is parallel-ish to the seatback and ass firmly on the seat. Success.

(But I am normal sized. If you are large or small, this might not work.)
posted by gjc at 3:55 PM on March 25, 2011

I was going to say everything that vytae said probably better. I recently flew for the first time after I began treatment for a severe lower back injury (coupled with arthritis in my back), and my chiropractor has taught me to roll stuff up whenever I go somewhere I can't get lumbar support. So I just rolled up my scarf, but you can use a jacket or sweater or anything, really (since pillows are getting harder to find on flights). The key is that you want to keep a curve to your lower back, your spine should curve in there and then back out around your butt. Most of the chairs we sit in force our backs into a C-shape, which is what causes pain.
posted by emcat8 at 4:52 PM on March 25, 2011

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