flying with back pain

Learn how to travel more comfortably by following these 20 tips to prepare yourself when flying with back pain. 

I used to love flying when I was younger. 

The whole experience was fun for me. 

Getting to the airport, looking around the shops, taking off, watching a movie, reading a book, even the in-flight meals.  

I actually found it all quite relaxing and comforting, a bit like a Sunday afternoon to yourself at home.​ 

And for that reason I'd always land feeling fresh and ready to go. 

Ah the joys of youth eh? ​

However nowadays it's a totally different story.

Because since my back problems began, flying has become a total ordeal for me. 

​I dread it for weeks in advance because I know the torture that is coming. 

Being crammed into an uncomfortable seat for hours with not enough leg room and being forced to get far more intimate with my fellow passengers than I'd like is no longer my idea of a good time.

And the seemingly endless hours of increasing pain and tension in my back and body that this brings just reinforces this. 

Not to mention the interminable boredom.​

It all leaves me feeling exhausted when I land at the other end and it can take me days to recover and feel like myself again.​

And it's not just me either.

In a survey by Spine Universe it was found that ​87% of the people they asked said that their back and neck pain became worse after taking a flight.

It's almost enough to make you give up long haul flights for good right? 

But for me my love of travel and seeing the world always wins out​.

And I'm sure yours does too.

So I've searched out 20 tips for us all to follow to give ourselves the best possible chance of surviving our next flight with the minimum of discomfort.​

These include things to do before, during and after the flight to keep your back happy (or at least happier!) on your next vacation.

Try them ​out for yourself the next time you take a trip and see if they make a difference.

Before The Flight

Your summer break is almost upon you and you are feeling so excited.

You're counting down the days at work and your mind is constantly elsewhere.

Wonderful scenarios are playing out in your head of sunny beaches, inviting oceans, beautiful sunsets and delicious cocktails.​

However there is a dark cloud hanging over this blissful state which is as welcome as a lingering fart in an elevator.

And that is the upcoming flight to get there.

The thought of which is filling you with dread and threatening to ruin your pre-vacation excitement.​

But instead of wasting time worrying about it be proactive instead.

Because there are things you can do to ensure you arrive at the airport in the best possible shape to conquer those flying demons.

And I'll take you through them now starting with your pre-flight preparations.​

1. Plan Your Trip Wisely

We all want the best deal when it comes to booking our flights don't we?

I know I do.

I'll shop around for hours trying to save a few bucks before committing myself.

After all every dollar you save on your flight is an extra one to spend in the bar right?​

However if this results in a 36-hour trip, having to change planes 2-3 times and wait for hours in 3 different airports then are the savings really worth it?​

Certainly not when you weigh it up against the torture that you will put your back through.

So when you are planning your trip by all means shop around for a great deal but also consider being as kind to your back as you are to your wallet.

And some of these things that can make the whole flying process easier on your body include:​

  • Try booking yourself onto flights at off-peak times as these will have more empty seats giving you more room and allow you to stretch yourself out.
  • Book yourself the aisle seat so you can get up and move around easily during the flight. This is also a good idea if you're tall.
  • For long haul flights consider breaking them up by taking a stopover if you have time. A night in a hotel can turn a gruelling 14-hour flight into 2 more manageable 7-hour flights with a nice rest inbetween.

Stopping over for a night in the middle of a long haul flight can make a massive difference.

2. Bring Over the Counter Medications With You

Sometimes your body needs a little help to relax and withstand the pressures that flying can bring.

So bring a supply of over the counter medications with you to help take away the pain and ease you through.

Get something to help you to relax and ease your pain mid-flight.

Drugs like Tylenol, Advil, Aleve, Motrin and Ibuprofen can help you to relax and fight off inflammation. ​

And by taking one an hour before your flight it will be in your system by the time you take off (a pre-emptive strike!).

Just keep a couple of things in mind when travelling with medication.

Always keep the medications in their original bottle or packaging to avoid any mix-ups at airport security.

And make sure they are legal in the countries you are flying to (you might be surprised).​

3. Consider Getting a Doctors Note

Now this one is optional and is perhaps best left for those with more serious back conditions.

However it can be a big help to have a doctors note outlining your back issues for a couple of reasons.

This guy doesn't look convinced!

Firstly by showing it at the check-in counter and to the flight attendants they will be aware of your needs and will do all they can to accommodate you.

This could be by providing you with extra pillows and blankets or moving you to a more comfortable seat.

I saw this work myself first-hand on my last flight.

The flight was three-quarters full but they allocated space for one guy with a doctors note for his bad back to take the whole 4 seats in one of the middle aisles so he could lay down.

Which was a right result for him as it was a 12 hour flight!​

And who knows, if you're supremely lucky and the flight is fairly empty you may even blag an upgrade.​

4. Don't Overload Your Carry-On Luggage

It can be really tempting to use our hand luggage to carry stuff that we can't fit into our suitcases.

I mean those weight allowances can be tight sometimes right? And paying extra is a pain.​

But the problem with this is that you have to lug this bag around the airport with you for a couple of hours before the flight.

And if it's really heavy then this is going to strain your muscles and tire them out before you're even on the plane!

Don't overload your back.

So try to keep it light so you can arrive onto the plane in a nice and relaxed state.​

Being a minimalist will work in your favour here.​

5. Prepare Your Body for the Battle Ahead

A boxer doesn't just step into the ring and rely on his skills and instincts to get him through a big fight.

He spends many weeks beforehand getting his body into the perfect condition for what is to come.​

And you should be doing the same when it comes to your flight.

​Because by staying active, strengthening your core muscles and stretching yourself out in the weeks before your flight your back becomes more flexible, supported and able to withstand the pressures of air travel.

Now doing these 3 things regularly is great advice in general as they are crucial to staying on top of your back pain. 

And if you already do then kudos, you will be ready when the big day at the airport arrives.

But if you are someone that doesn't get enough exercise try and introduce some gentle activity in the fortnight leading up to your flight.

Just by taking a daily walk and getting into a regular stretching routine you could really make a massive difference to how you feel on your flight.

And for some ideas of gentle daily stretches and movements to make your body more flexible check out the video below.​

During The Flight

The aisles of doom.....

​Ok so now you've prepared like a pro and are ready which is great.

Because once you're on board and ready for take off the battle has well and truly commenced.

And when this battle is fought for hours and hours on long-haul flights it can leave you mentally and physically shattered by the time you land.

So make sure you are fighting the good fight by doing as many of the following as possible.​

6. Be Careful When Lifting Your Luggage into the Overhead Lockers

Hopefully if you've followed tip number 4 then your carry-on bag won't be too heavy.

But if it is then you need to be careful when putting it up into the overhead lockers.

Don't injure yourself before take off!

Because if you do this wrong ​and tweak your back it's game over before the flight has even taken off!

So make sure you lift safely using your knees rather than your back.

And don't twist your body while you are holding it. Pivot with your feet instead.​

If you are worried and your back is already feeling painful ask someone on board to put your bag away for you. ​

7. Make Sure you are Sitting With a Good Posture

​One of the main reasons your back pain worsens on long flights is because you are forced to sit down in the same position for a long time.

And this is one thing that your body hates!

As prolonged periods of sitting have been shown to lead to the development of lower back pain.

This happens because when you sit your vertebrae become compressed and your muscles that support your back remain inactive.

Which leads to a weakening of both your spinal discs and supporting muscles which places your back and spine under increasing strain and pressure.

And this effect is amplified during flights because of the vibrations of the plane which are absorbed by your body.​

So you need to learn a few tricks to counteract the painful effects of sitting and one way is to maintain a healthy sitting posture. ​

Now it may not surprise you to learn that airlines design their seats so they can get as many paying customers onto a flight as possible rather than for your comfort.

​And not only are these seats really hard to get comfortable in they are also really hard to sit in with a good posture.

This is because they don't come with any lumbar support and the shape and angle of them forces you to sit with your spine in a 'C' curve which puts pressure and strain onto it.​

And when you add in the limited leg room for us tall folk it can feel impossible to relax and sit correctly.

But there are a few things you can do to make your plane seat less of a problem.​

Firstly try to book a seat which comes with extra leg room such as one in an exit row.​

Then when seated try to:

  • Keep you spine and neck in alignment by sitting up straight with your shoulders back.
  • Recline your seat slightly to ease the pressure on your lower back.
  • Your legs should remain in alignment with your hips at an angle between 90-110 degrees.
  • Knees should be at a 90 degree angle.
  • Keep both feet on the floor as this helps to support your body weight and takes strain off your back. If you are too small then use something as a foot rest.

The video below runs through a few extra tips for sitting healthily in your plane seat.

8. Use Pillows to Help

To maintain a good sitting posture you should be aiming to sit in a way that maintains the natural 'S' curve of your spine.

However plane seats can make this difficult to do.

So consider bringing a lumbar support cushion with you .

These cushions are great for helping you to sit with and maintain a good posture.

Because by placing one between your lower back and the seat your spine naturally adopts the correct curve which reduces strain and pressure on it.​

And a great one to use for air travel is the Therm-a-Rest Lumbar Pillow.​

Being inflatable it is light and easy to carry around in your carry-on bag as it can be rolled up into the size of a can of soda when deflated.​

And it self-inflates so you don't need to worry about bringing a pump or blowing yourself out!

You can also adjust the amount of air to make it as hard or soft as you like.

So it makes the perfect travel companion.​

And another good idea to keep your spine in alignment is to use a neck pillow.

Neck pain is just as common as back pain when flying and it can be so easy to crook your neck by sitting or attempting to sleep in awkward positions.

So get yourself a neck pillow such as the Cabeau Evolution Memory Foam Travel Pillow for your next flight.

Not only will this help ward off neck pain it'll also keep you more comfortable and relaxed.

And you'll have a better chance of getting 40 winks too!

9. Get Up and Move Around Regularly

As I've already mentioned sitting down for long periods in the same position is a nightmare for your back.

However a great way to limit these effects is to take regular microbreaks from sitting by getting up out of your seat and moving around.

​This will help to keep your spinal discs healthy by decompressing your vertebrae.

And by engaging your back supporting muscles again they have less chance of weakening.

So try to get up out of your seat for 5 minutes at least once per hour on a long flight (this is much easier if you have an aisle seat).

However be aware that just getting up isn't enough.

You need to move and mobilise your body to get your muscles working and the blood flowing again.

So walk up and down the aisle a couple of times and do some stretches like the ones in the video below​ (the back of the plane is usually the best place for this).

This will help to break up the flight and keep your back healthier in the process.​

10. Do Some Seated Stretching Exercises too

Now getting up out of your seat for a stretch and a walk every hour is a great way of staying out of pain on a long flight but it may not always be possible.

For example if your flight is a turbulent one then the seat belt sign may remain on for hours at a time and prevent you from getting out of your seat.

So in cases like this it is important to practice small stretches while you are sitting.

​This will help to relieve the build up of pressure and tension in your body that sitting still in the same position brings.

And it'll also help to keep your blood circulating.​

​So check out this article that explains a few nice stretches you can do when sitting down on a plane.

Or check the video below.​

And don't be afraid to fidget!

Because even these small movements work to keep your muscles active and minimise the risk of developing deep​ vein thrombosis during a long flight.

11. Use a Heating Pad

During your flight your back muscles can become stiff, sore and tight which can leave you in a lot of pain and discomfort.

However a good way of easing this pain and getting these muscles to relax is by applying heat to them.

Because heat can:

  • Increase blood flow to the area which helps to deliver oxygen and nutrients that help your damaged muscles to heal.
  • Override pain signals to the brain by stimulating the skins receptors with the heating sensation.
  • Encourage the release of endorphins which are the body's natural painkiller.
  • Relax your body and leave you feeling comforted by the sensation of heat.

Now this isn't as easy to do in the air as it is in your own home but there are some great options ​still.

And one I'd recommend for flights are the Thermacare Heat Wraps.

These fit nicely under your clothing and will keep your back muscles warm for hours on end.

Perfect for those long journeys.​

12. Wear Comfortable Clothing

Some people just make flying look effortless don't they?

For example celebrities such as the Beckham's get papped getting off a 14-hour flight dressed to the nines and looking like they've just stepped off a photo shoot.​

While us mere mortals look like we've been dragged through a hedge backwards!​

However don't be tempted to go for gold and emulate the fashionistas.

You're not going to look like this going through airport security so don't bother trying!

Photo credit: Friskytuna

As your back will get so much more benefit from wearing comfortable clothes instead.

Because this will allow your body to move freely, relax fully and feel at home rather than be sat tense and upright in your fancy gear.​

And spoiler alert​: The Beckham's probably haven't ridden economy for over two decades and take a shower and change clothes in the first-class lounge before facing the cameras.

So don't feel bad strolling through to baggage reclaim in your comfy old tracksuit.

Feel relaxed and healthy instead.

13. Try Some Relaxation Techniques

When we are stressed, tense and anxious we tend to hold this tension within our muscles.

And this can make you feel sore and painful.​

You've probably felt this yourself.

Your shoulders hunch up and your lower back tightens when you feel stressed like this.

So it makes sense to learn how to relax and release this tension and nowhere more so than on the plane.

Close your eyes, breathe deeply and drift off to a better place.

Photo credit: Pedro Lopez

Because the whole business of travel is stressful and you are more than likely going to feel a bit frazzled by the time you board your flight.

​So have a go at the following while sat in your seat and feel that stress and tension drift away:

  • Take off your shoes - this is simple but really effective. And it can also help you to avoid contracting deep vein thrombosis.
  • Try foursquare deep breathing - close your eyes and breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, and repeat until you feel nice and calm.
  • Meditate - Now this one takes prior practice and knowledge but if you are familiar with meditating then it is a great way to relax during your flight.
  • Use visualisation - again this one takes a bit of practice but it can work well. Close your eyes and visualise being in a calm and happy place such as a beach or the countryside. Now expand the fantasy and notice and feel all the small details of the scene. This will take you far away from your pain and into a happy and relaxed state of mind.

And if you're one of those lucky few that can sleep on planes then even better.

14. Drink Plenty of Water

Staying hydrated is important for everyone but especially for those of us with chronic back pain.

Because the water you take in helps to keep your spinal discs healthy and working as they should.

This stuff is magical.

And it also helps your body in a multitude of other ways such as :​

  • Nourishing your cells and organs.
  • Helping you to digest food.
  • Lubricating your joints.
  • Eliminating waste and toxins from the body.
  • Keeping your brain functioning well.
  • Improving your mood.

So drinking water regularly is a great habit to get into.

And it's even more important during a flight as the low air pressure inside the cabin can dehydrate your body much more than usual.

So drink plenty of water during the flight to keep your back on the right track.

And this will have the added bonus of making you need to pee more often too, so you'll have a good excuse to get up out of your seat and get your body moving again!​

But while drinking water is good remember to limit alcohol and caffeinated drinks as these can dehydrate you even more.

15. Diversion, Diversion, Diversion

When your back is feeling stiff and painful it can be all you can think about.

It completely takes over whatever you are doing and makes everyday things a real struggle.

However there are ways you can consciously distract your brain away from the pain.

This is possible because your brain only has a limited capacity to be able to take in the overwhelming amount of sensory information that surrounds you.

So it has to focus on what it feels is the most important information and unfortunately pain sensations are usually at the very top of that list.

However if you give your brain something else to think about instead you can move it's focus away from the pain.

Because when you are absorbed in another activity your brain doesn't have the capacity to listen to the pain signals as well.

So distracting it is a great way to get temporary relief from the pain and this works best with things you really enjoy.

And during a flight you have plenty of options to do this by:​

  • Buying a book that interests you at the airport to get stuck into.
  • Watching one of the in-flight movies or downloading a box set to your laptop/iPad.
  • Listening to one of your favourite albums.
  • Downloading a few podcasts to listen to during the flight.

By keeping your brain occupied you can block the pain signals which will enable you to enjoy your flight a lot more and feel much more comfortable.

And doing something you enjoy will also encourage the release of endorphins which will improve your mood and help to fight off pain.

A real win-win situation.​

After The Flight

If you've followed all the tips up till now then hopefully you'll be leaving the airport feeling this happy too.

Once you land it's all about recovering your body and mind as quickly as you can so you can feel like yourself again and fully enjoy your vacation.

So don't just get to the hotel and flop down on the bed.

Try to do the following to give yourself the chance to recover a lot faster.

16. Have a Good Stretch

Your body will most likely feel tighter and less flexible after a long flight.

I know for me I can feel a bit stiff and sore for days after travelling.

However if you don't do anything to rectify this then it can have knock-on effects for your posture and ​place your lower back under extra pressure and strain.

So when you check in to your hotel room have a good stretch.

This will help to release the build-up of tension in your muscles and get the blood circulating again.

Which will help your aching muscles to heal and recover.​

And it'll also help you to feel a hell of a lot better too!​

Any of the stretching routines I've featured here (or any of your own) will work fine​.

But if you want some ideas specifically designed for after flying take a look at the video below.​

17. Go for a Walk

Similarly to stretching going for a walk will also help you to get rid of the tension that has built up in your body.

It'll also get your blood pumping and your body moving.

And let's face it who doesn't want to nip out and explore their new surroundings when they first arrive in a new place?

Get your bearings and get your body moving again.

So when you arrive at your hotel and have had a good stretch, drop your bags and go for a walk to get some fresh air into your lungs and energy into your body.

And if that walk happens to end up in a bar selling a nice cold beer then all the better!​

18. Take a Warm Bath

So you've had a stretch and a walk and a nice cold beer. Now what?

A nice hot shower can be a good idea as it is refreshing and will help to invigorate and energise your tired muscles.

However if your hotel room has a bath then take advantage and have a nice hot soak instead.​

Don't forget to pack your rubber duck.

The heat will help to relax your aching muscles and also your mind after a stressful day of travelling.

Which will leave you feeling loose, comfortable and free from cramping muscles.​

And most importantly in less pain.​

It'll also help you to get into a relaxed state that will allow you to get some sleep which can be difficult after flying, especially if you're passing through different time-zones.

19. Get a Good Night's Sleep

Everything feels better after a good night's sleep right?

​And this includes your back pain after a long flight.

A great first night's sleep will set you up for the rest of your vacation.

​Because it is during sleep that our muscles and body heal and regenerate themselves to get you ready for the following day.

And it also calms your central nervous system which helps to keep you mentally and emotionally healthy.

So there's nothing better after a long flight that has left you feeling physically and emotionally drained than to get a good night's sleep.​

20. Get a Massage

If you're still aching and stiff when you wake up the next morning consider getting a massage.

​Because massages are great for releasing tight muscle knots that cause you pain and tension.

By stimulating these knots the masseuse encourages them to release which allows blood to circulate to the area, waste and toxins to be flushed away, and damaged muscles and tissues to heal and repair.​

And they also help you to feel relaxed and get your emotions back on an even keel after the trauma of the travelling experience.

Let someone else work out the last of those kinks.

Massages are usually a lot cheaper in the countries people vacation in than where they are flying out from so take advantage of this.

Because your back will definitely feel the benefits and it will help you get over the last lingering pain from the flight.

And anyway we all love a nice massage don't we?​

​Rounding Up

Flying can be a nightmare experience if you suffer from back pain.

The uncomfortable seats, the air pressure, the stresses of travelling and the cramped environment can all lead to you arriving at your destination feeling like a physical and emotional wreck.

However it doesn't have to be this way.

By following these 20 tips you can make flying off on your next vacation a far more pleasant and comfortable experience.

And if you have any other tips that have helped you in the past I'd love to hear them in the comments below.

Happy travels!

Resources used in researching this article:

http://www.travelandleisure.com/trip-ideas/yoga-wellness/hot-bath-calorie-burning​

​https://www.smartertravel.com/2017/06/19/7-tips-traveling-back-pain/

​https://www.wikihow.com/Stop-Back-Pain-by-Relaxing

Daniel

A 30-something painter and decorator, psychology graduate, and veteran of 5 spinal surgeries. Looking to explore the physical, psychological and emotional effects of living with chronic low back pain.

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