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Airplane flying above the clouds at dusk

Flying with Back Pain

As the holidays approach, some of you may be choosing to travel by plane to visit family. An estimated 6 million Floridians will be traveling by plane this holiday season. And, as we've discussed in the past, as much as 80% of Americans experience back pain at some point. Over half experience it every year. It's a growing number, and one of the major contributors to this problem is an increase in sedentary lifestyles.

The center of a Venn diagram with one group being "plane travelers" and the other being "back pain" is not insignificant. That means a large portion of Americans will be flying with back pain this next week. "Low back plane?" There's a funnier way to use that pun, but I'm not a comedian.

If you're currently dealing with back pain (or even if you're not), flying smart can help you avoid problems later. Here are some tips I recommend next time you're planning a flight.

Planning Ahead

  • Book at off peak times to avoid crowded flights and allow for a smoother experience. Book flights with shorter in-flight connections or layovers times, if applicable.
  • When given the option to choose your seat, select an aisle seat. It's the easiest way to get up and move during the flight. Keep in mind certain rows on planes do not recline; these are usually the very last row and the row in front of an exit row.
  • Invest in lightweight spinner luggage that you don't need to tip and pull behind you. Pack light as to not can cause or aggravate back pain by straining and lifting.

Boarding

  • Be aware of your surroundings. We're not typically used to being packed into a small tight space with little room to move. Take into account the proper mechanics with each movement.
  • Lift luggage in stages. Back injuries often happen at the end of your range of motion when lifting a heavy item. First, lift your luggage onto the top of a seat. Then, in a separate motion, lift it into the overhead bin. Reverse the process when removing the luggage at the end of your flight.
  • Bend at the knees rather than the back and use leg muscles to lift the luggage.
  • Minimize twisting the torso while lifting. Pivot with the feet instead.

Getting Seated

  • Create length in your spine and watch your posture. Position yourself all the way back in your seat, bending at the hips to lower yourself down. Keep your shoulders back and avoid slouching or hunching forward. Keep your feet firmly resting on the floor.
  • Bring a travel pillow for rest and reading time to help avoid neck strain.
  • For lower back pain, a lumbar support pillow can be used to help prevent slouching and to keep your spine straight. Self-inflating lumbar supports are great as they can easily become flat for easy packing. If you don't have one, ask for a pillow or use a rolled up jacket, sweater, or blanket to provide support behind your lower back.
  • Fasten the lap belt over hip bones. This will secure your back in the most ideal posture for flying to keep the lower spine from going into too much extension or flexion. Relax and allow the seat belt to do the work. Never place the lap belt above or on your belly.

During the Flight

  • Get up and move as much as possible! Sitting in one position for long periods of time can stiffen the back muscles and stress the spine, which can make back pain much worse. You should get up at least every 30 minutes, especially on longer flights.
  • While standing, make sure to loosen up those joints and muscles that have been inactive. Go to the back of the plane if you can and do some gentle stretches. Movement improves circulation, allowing blood to bring important nutrients and oxygen to the muscles of the back and legs.

Stretches & Exercises

Here are a few exercises you can do on the plane to help avoid flying with back pain. These can all be done right in your seat. Some are more easily done if you were able to snag an aisle seat.

Seated Push-Offs

This can be done by creating fists and using them to push your body up off of the seat to a slight raise. Engage your core and round head into the chest; this will stretch your back muscles.

Seated push-off exercise
Figure 4 stretch

Figure 4 Stretch

Cross one leg over the top of the knee of the other leg to create a “figure four.” Then lean your body down towards your legs to create tension in your glutes until you feel a stretch. Hold this stretch for 20 seconds, then repeat 3 times for each leg.

Sitting Hamstring Stretch

Sit at the edge of your seat and straighten one leg in front of the body with the heel on the floor. Then, sit up straight and try pushing the navel towards the thigh while keep the back arched, without leaning the trunk of the body forwards. Hold this stretch for 20 seconds, then repeat 3 times for each leg.

Seated hamstring stretch
Ankle circle exercise

Ankle Circles

Gently create circular movement in the shoulders, wrists and ankles; this can be done in your seat or standing.