Traveling with Back Pain

By Robert Daniel Lim, PTA, Site Coordinator

Coping with Back Pain During the Long Car Ride

Have you decided to go on the that family trip that you have been planning for months or years but traveling via car is the cost-effective way to get there? The biggest issues with long car rides for any trips are distance. Some trips my take two hours some may take days. Issues that might arise can be neck pain, knee pain, hip pain but also the dreaded low back pain.

There are ways that you can avoid back pain prior to your trip. First thing first is getting that seat as comfortable as possible. Sitting up versus slumping will be the best position for your neck and low back. Also, you might want to take a rolled-up towel or pillow to best position or mid back and low back area. Adjusting the headrest will help with decreasing stress to the neck area. Especially for extremely long trips, taking pit stops either at rest areas, gas stations or restaurants, make sure you get out and stretch and move around.

Driving Can Be a Real Pain in the BACK!

Have you ever felt tired, achy, and sore after driving in your car all day? Chances are that your seat is not in the proper position. Most people are aware that excessive driving is detrimental to the general health of the spine. When driving for long periods of time, the lumbar curve in the spine fatigues and causes extra stress and strain on the vertebrae. If you add in the constant subtle bouncing and jolting from a moving car, you end up with more soreness from your neck to your lower back.

Traveling with back pain JOI Rehab

Driving Posture

Modern day vehicles claim to be equipped to make your driving experience more comfortable. In reality they are only promoting the problem! Modern cars have a lowered roofline reducing the internal space. This forces the driver to lower and recline the seat, and put extra strain on the cervical and lumbar spine. Not only is it uncomfortable, it can make you tired. Many accidents and near misses are caused from the driver being fatigued, drowsy, or sometimes dozing off while driving. Good seat posture might seem minute, but it takes only seconds to
make you more comfortable and alert.

Traveling With Back Pain Tips 

First, make sure the backrest is adjusted so that your shoulder blades are resting against the back of the seat, your lower back fits the seat, and your bottom is all the way back against the seat so your thighs are completely supported. The cushion should hit near the back of your knees. The seat should only be reclined slightly. If it is too low, you will have to flex your neck forward as a compensation to be able to see. Forward neck flexion over 15 degrees over a prolonged period of time can increase neck pain. Make sure that the seat is adjusted so your
knees are slightly bent when you press the pedals to the floor. If you have a manual transmission, this is very important. Many people complain of increased lower back pain when pushing in the clutch. If your car has a lumbar support feature, use it. If not, consider purchasing a lumbar support pillow that can be attached to the seat.

More Driving Tips

Second, if your steering wheel is able to be adjusted up and down, make sure it is at a level where the wrists of both arms (when stretched out completely) are directly over the top of the steering wheel. Your arms should be bent when holding the steering wheel at the 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock positions. If you have ever experienced neck or shoulder pain while driving, it is most likely due to increasing tension from gripping the wheel too tightly.

Try to relax while driving. A simple test to check to see if your seat and steering wheel are in the correct position is to place your hands on the steering wheel and look down at your legs. You should be able to see the same amount of your leg on both sides. If your right leg is slightly obscured by your arm, your shoulder girdle is slightly rotated to the left and your steering wheel is offset.

Keep in mind that your back is weaker and more susceptible to injury after long periods of driving. On long trips make frequent stops to get out and move around. These simple adjustments can make a world of difference to someone who suffers from chronic neck and back pain


Male experiencing back pain after a long drive in his car.

Driver with back pain

Traveling with Back Pain During a Long Airplane Trips

Now that you read about coping with back pain for a long car ride and you have decided that going via a car will be long and pain staking but taking a plane will be best for you, there are few tips and tricks that can help. When booking your flight, take a few things in consideration.  Make sure that flight times aren’t to early.  Also consider taking direct flights versus multiple layovers.

If you have multiple medical conditions or chronic cervical, midback, and low back pain you might consider getting assistance with getting a particular seat or certain privileges when flying. As mentioned above plan on taking a pillow for extra cervical/thoracic/lumbar support. Posture is always key when sitting for long periods of time. Adjust your seat when you can during the flight. Staying stationary especially sitting puts strain on your low back. Take the time to stand up and stretch your legs and back.

Young man (traveler) using smart phone during flight and listening music.

Traveler preparing for flight.

How to Prepare for a Long Trip

When preparing for a long trip either by car or plane, get plenty of rest prior to your trip. Traveling when your exhausted either mentally or physically can be very taxing to the body. Especially when driving long periods of time, you increase the risk of falling asleep behind the wheel.  Therefore, make sure you are taking breaks when you feel sleepy. Another quick tip is to back healthy snacks. Pack snacks such as nuts or fruits and veggies versus chips and junk food. Stretching prior to your trip can also be very helpful. Being loose and relaxed can help with making joint loose and flexible.

Best Exercises When You Are Traveling with Back Pain

The following exercises below are some of the most effective exercises for low back pain. These are simple but yet effective enough to help with flexibility, mobility and overall core and glute strength.


  1. Lie on the ground or bed and bend the knees, placing the feet flat on the floor hip-width apart.
  2. Press the feet into the floor, keeping the arms by the sides.
  3. Raise the buttocks off the ground until the body forms a straight line from the shoulders to the knees
  4. Squeeze the glutes for approx.. 5 seconds.
  5. Lower the buttocks to the ground and rest.
  6. Repeat 10-15 times and then rest for 30 seconds to a minute.
    1. Do 3 sets of 15 repetitions.
female athlete performing a bridge with exercise band

Female athlete performing a bridge

Lower Trunk Rotations

  1. Lie back on the floor or bed with bent knees together and feet flat on the ground.
  2. Keeping the shoulders on the floor, gently roll both bent knees over to one side to were you feel a good stretch.
  3. Hold the position for 5–10 seconds.
  4. Return to the starting position.
  5. Gently roll the bent knees over to the opposite side, hold, and then return to start position.
  6. Repeat about 10-15 on each side.

Single or Double Knee to Chest

  1. Lie on the back on the floor or bed.
  2. Bend the knees, keeping both or either feet flat on the floor.
  3. Use both hands to pull one knee or both knees in toward the chest.
  4. Hold the knee towards the chest for 5 seconds
  5. Return to the starting position.
  6. Repeat with each leg 2–3 times twice a day.
single knee to chest stretch

single knee to chest stretch

If you have been traveling with back pain and need relief, please call for an appointment.  For physical therapy for the back, please call 904-858-7045. 

Traveling With Back Pain Conclusion

Do you have back or neck pain that is not improving? Jacksonville Orthopaedic Institute can help! To schedule an appointment, call 904-JOI-2000, schedule online, or clink the link below.

By: Robert Lim, PTA

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