More than 80 percent of adults will probably take at least one summer road trip this year*. On average, they’re willing to drive more than 500 miles. That equates to approximately 8-9 hours on the road.
There are many positive reasons for choosing travel by car: fresh air, low cost, enjoyment of driving, family time. Unfortunately there are some drawbacks as well. Long drives are not good for the back. If you suffer with any kind of back or neck pain, such as bulging or herniated disc, spinal arthritis or sciatica, you may find your pain aggravated by long stretches on the road. If you don’t have a specific low back or neck pain condition, stress and aches on the spine can develop on long car trips, affecting even the healthiest person. Both the lower (lumbar) spine and the neck (cervical) can be negatively affected.
Why Car Travel is Not Great for Back Pain
1. Car seats are not ergonomically ideal. There is some adjusting you can do to the angles and height of a driver or front passenger seat. But overall the seated position of the driver or passenger is likely to bring the center of gravity right over the discs, which can lead to an increase in pain. Poor posture assumed in a car seat worsens things.
2. When sitting in a fixed position for a long time, muscles can stiffen. This can cause spasms and shorten hip flexors. The driver may also experience hyperextension of the neck and cramping of the legs.
3. Packing the car with suitcases, coolers or other heavy/bulky items can also exacerbate an existing back pain condition. Often people lift too-heavy loads and/or lift improperly, and don’t realize that they’re putting incredible strain on their lower backs.
Minimize Low Back Pain and Neck Pain on Long Drives
These simple reminders can help to minimize back and neck pain while enjoying your road trip.
1. Use a Lumbar Support Pillow: this can greatly reduce stress on the lower back. It will support your lower back and help you to maintain proper alignment over your hips. It’s good for just about any seat in the car.
2. Good Posture: Having good driving posture will minimize strain on your neck, shoulders and lower back. Especially if you’re the driver, take time to adjust your seat before beginning your long drive. Make sure you can see in the rear and side mirrors by moving your eyes, not straining your neck. Also that you can see all dashboard dials and information by just moving your eyes. Be able to hold the steering wheel comfortably, without lifting, rounding or straining your shoulders or neck. Your feet should reach the pedals in a relaxed way. Don’t sit too far away that you strain your ankle or toes, or too close that your knee is bent up under the wheel.
3. Take Driving Breaks and Stretch: If you suffer with low back pain or neck pain, stop every 30-60 minutes. Pull the car over to a safe spot, park and get out. Stretch your muscles; loosen your joints, move around get your blood circulating.
Specifically, and this is good for everyone, place your hands on your low back and extend backwards so you feel a good stretch. Also you can rotate your upper torso carefully from side to side. This should take no more than a minute. These stretches will help dissipate pressure on your spine and help you feel more comfortable.
4. Move Often: Change position as you’re able, especially if you are a passenger. (If the car has cruise control, use it while driving to rest your legs.)
5. Pack Smart: Be mindful when loading and unloading the trunk. As always, lift with your legs, not your back. Resist the urge to bend over when maneuvering heavy objects. Pivot to turn. Hold heavy items close to your body. Ask for help before pushing yourself too far!
6. Share the Load: Don’t do it alone, if at all possible. Share the driving with another adult; take turns relaxing both your muscles and your mind.
7. Stop When You Should – Your health is too important. If your low back pain or neck pain becomes intense, stop! Rest, ice and lay down with a pillow under your knees. If this doesn’t help, or if you develop persistent numbness, loss of muscle power or bowel/bladder symptoms, call your health professional.
* Survey fielded by Bridgestone Americas in May 2014.