You are all packed, suitcase is ready and you’re rolling it to the car, you are excited and are ready to finally get somewhere sunny, warm, and fun. You swing down to lift up the suitcase and feel it, your lower back grabs a little funny.  The next moments are filled with a combination of anxiety and concern.  Did it just go out? Am I going to be ok? What should I do? Don’t worry; we’re about to tell you how to prevent back pain on spring break.


Old injuries and new problems both thrive in a stressful environment. While travel is fun, we can all appreciate there is some anxiety and stress with getting out of town. In the days leading up to your trip, there are many steps you can take to help your body deal with the increased stress and inflammation to avoid having anything significant set you back. How you prepare and how you travel can be the key to avoiding any unwanted pain showing up. Let’s figure this travel thing out. 


Why does travel cause my back or neck pain?


We often spend days of travel sitting a great deal. Car, bus or plane each is a waiting game filled with different chairs for often very long periods of time. Snacks and drinks filled with highly processed ingredients, drinks full of sugar or alcohol cause your body to inflame. After an already stressful day the combination of inflammation and stress can trigger old injury to show up. 


Our bodies for better or worse get adapted to the routines they are used to.  When we get thrown out of our routine it leads to problems.  Here are a few of the most common things that travelers run into. 


What are the most common reasons we have pain when traveling? 

Prolonged sitting and standing have become the norm for most of us; office, driving and work all have added hours to time sitting. If you have been in the clinic in recent years you have probably heard us talk about different strategies to reduce pain associated with sitting. We have adopted many strategies to manage musculoskeletal pain through simple lifestyle changes like posture breaks and simple movements throughout the day.  When traveling you may get caught in a position or posture for HOURS.  Whenever you travel it is important that you try to get up and move, change positions and stretch lightly about every hour.  


What are the best stretches to reduce pain while traveling? 

The best part about posture breaks and stretching while traveling is that it doesn’t have to be a big deal.  You don’t need much space, and can accomplish it in just a few moments.  


Make the day of travel about simple stretches like the examples below and walking.  Save the aggressive stretching, yoga and more intense exercise for after you have settled into your destination. 

Standing back bend

Almost all travel pushes us towards spine flexion.  We slouch in our chairs, over a steering wheel, book, or phone, sleep sitting up or cramped up in too small a space.  This prolonged flexing position is a common trigger for those unexpected catch moments, you go to stand or lift, and something in your back catches or gives and you’re stuck.  


Ideally we would use these stretches about every 45 minutes of sitting, but take the opportunity when you have it.  Start by standing up, put your hands on your hips or the small of your back, keep your legs mostly straight, and then push your hips forward while leaning back. Start with light pressure and work into this; stop when you feel tension, hold for a second and come back to neutral, and REPEAT.  Don’t do just 1 or 2 reps, do a set of 10-15, each repetition trying to get a little further into extension.  


This is a great travel stretch because it is usually very comfortable. It works to restore blood flow to tissues that have been overly stretched for a longer period of time and is very therapeutic. 

Neck & Shoulder Stretch

After you have done some back bends then we can start to move the neck and shoulders.  Put your hands to your sides, turn your hand’s palms forward, pull your shoulder blades together gently but not completely, and think about just getting into a proud upright posture, drive your hands toward the ground, look towards the horizon and then pull your head straight back. You should feel like you’re making a double chin.  Hold for 5-10 seconds and repeat.  

These 2 stretches go a long way to help restore good blood flow to stressed tissues and can be done nearly anywhere in a pinch. 

What can we do about our luggage when traveling to avoid pain? 

Heavy backpacks and luggage are also a common trigger for pain and injury while traveling.  Studies have shown that when riding in a vehicle the vibration of the road can actually make it more difficult for your muscles to adapt and respond to stress and load for about 10 minutes after stopping. A simple fix is to walk and stretch for a few minutes before grabbing that heavy bag or pack, you will get a quick muscle reset. This is also a great opportunity to check in on your body, does anything hurt, are there any weird catches or is anything unusual after traveling. 

To avoid pain and injury from your luggage, it’s important to pack light and choose luggage that is easy to carry. If you must carry a heavy load, use a backpack or a suitcase with wheels to distribute the weight evenly. When lifting heavy luggage, use proper lifting techniques, bending at the knees and lifting with your legs rather than your back.  Avoid lifting and twisting with the weight.  We see lower and middle back injuries on a regular basis that are the result of a lift and twist movement. 

Can you have pain when traveling from too much relaxing or sitting?

Hopefully your travel is one that will include some downtime.  Many of us are ready to get out of the cold weather and hit up somewhere warm.  This can be a great opportunity to rest and recover, reduce stress and feel better but sometimes that can mean days of hanging out and sitting around.  If you find that your travel is full of sitting and resting then you have to work to incorporate movement during your days.  Going for walks, swimming, and biking are fun and simple ways to incorporate movement. Afterall, movement is the key to your body staying happy and healthy.  Don’t let the vacation mindset stop you from being active. 

Pain from too much sitting around can be avoided, it’s important to incorporate exercise and stretching into your travel routine. Take a walk around the airport or stretch in your seat during a long flight. If you’re staying in a hotel, take advantage of the gym or pool to get some exercise. Even a short walk or yoga session can help prevent musculoskeletal pain.

Finally, poor ergonomics can contribute to musculoskeletal pain while traveling. Uncomfortable, cramped spaces, and lack of lumbar support can all lead to pain and discomfort in the back, neck, and shoulders.

To prevent this type of pain, it’s important to choose transportation with comfortable seats and adequate support. If you’re driving, adjust your seat to provide proper support for your back and neck. If you’re flying, consider upgrading to a seat with more legroom or lumbar support. We highly recommend a lumbar roll.  McKenzie rolls are easy to travel with and a supremely effective way to reduce lower back pain and improve the comfort of travel. 

Musculoskeletal pain while traveling is common, but it can be prevented with proper planning, posture breaks, support and movement. By taking breaks, packing light, incorporating exercise and stretching, and choosing transportation with adequate support, you can prevent pain and discomfort while on the go.



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