Travel Tips for Avoiding Back Pain During the Holidays
These travel tips were written by: Jessica Cole, PT, DPT Staff Physical Therapist at High Performance Physical Therapy
We all know that holiday travel can be extremely stressful. This is especially true when you’re busy rushing to get to the airport so you don’t miss your flight or trying to figure out that one thing you forgot to pack. Your mind is in such a panic you may forget to pay attention to the most important detail to your travel plans – your BODY!
We all want to enjoy a stress-free vacation (or even just make it through the holidays) without experiencing back and neck pain or injury. To help accomplish that, here are some very useful tips for maintaining a healthy spine. Winter activity injury prevention isn’t just about sports – it includes traveling, too.
Be aware of what can happen to you and take precautions to prevent winter activity distress. You don’t want to need physical therapy for winter sports injuries.
Lift with your legs, not your back.
Need to lift your luggage to put it in your trunk, an overhead compartment, or simply get it through security? You want to make sure you protect your back by using proper body mechanics. Do this regardless of how high you need to lift it. This also applies to carrying bags and packages, too.
When bending down to grab onto your luggage, you want to be standing over your suitcase. Do this so you can bring your items close to your chest without having to shift your body weight too far forward. Shifting like this has the potential to impact balance or cause shoulder pain or elbow pain.
When lifting any object, the weight of it should be as close to your body as possible. Securely lift from the bottom of the bag in order to maintain a more stable grasp.
Bend with your knees and hips into a squat position, but keep your spine in neutral. The depth of the squat depends on the size and weight of the bag you’re carrying. Be mindful of your knees during this step.
When returning to a standing position, your legs should be the driving force of motion when lifting your luggage. Distribute the weight evenly through your feet and squeeze with your quads and glutes together until you achieve an upright standing position. The muscle groups used in this motion are similar to those utilized by skiers.
- Do NOT lift with your back muscles, they are not needed for this type of activity. Improper lifting often leads to back pain – which limits the ability to participate in other winter sports and activities.
- Be mindful that your luggage or bag doesn’t slide back and hit you in the head. Though most luggage isn’t heavy enough to do permanent damage, head injuries are possible, especially with hard-sided bags.
Watch your weight
The weight of the bag determines how deeply you need to squat.
- The heavier the bag, the deeper the squat will be.
- Avoid using your back muscles to lift your luggage.
- If your suitcase is too heavy for you to lift by yourself, don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’ll be better for 2 people to lift a heavy bag with the right mechanics than struggling by yourself and getting injured.
- You can also separate the task of lifting a heavy bag by breaking it up into steps. You can first lift the bag onto a higher surface like a chair, step, or a table before reaching the final destination – which is a commonly overlooked travel tip.
- Using a bag with wheels is better than carrying a bag over one shoulder – wheeled luggage results in better weight distribution and less stress on your body.
- If you need to purchase new luggage, it is better for your body to have luggage made with light-weight materials compared to heavier ones.
Lightweight materials: Polypropylene or Nylon
Heavy materials: Everything else
Getting Comfy in your Seat
When traveling by plane, train, or automobile, sitting for hours on end is a part of the traveling process, so making sure you are comfortably positioned is a top priority. Here are the types of support to consider:
- Cervical support: You can use a rolled-up sweater or blanket to fit comfortably in the space between your neck and the back of the chair. This will place your neck in a neutral alignment with the rest of your spine. Purchasing a neck pillow is also an option, but make sure it does not push your head too far forward.
- Lumbar support: Placing something (possibly a coat or sweater) in the area of your lumbar curve will unload pressure on the lower segments of your spine. This alleviates – and in some cases – prevents back pain.
- Armrests: If your seat doesn’t come with arm support, you can always use a pillow in your lap or off to your side. Having arm support will assist cervical alignment and reduce pressure placed on your lower back – which is especially useful for longer flights or trips.
- Footrests: Your feet should be comfortably planted on the floor with your hips and knees bent to a 90 degree angle. This is done to reduce stress on the lower back. If your feet don’t reach the floor, place a bag or another sturdy surface under your feet to compensate.
When standing over your luggage trying to fit in as many outfits as you can for your weekend getaway, you’ll want to make sure you are maintaining neutral spine alignment. Then, while you unpack, make sure you’re bending forward with your hips and knees until you are directly over the bag’s opening. Don’t lean.
- What is a neutral spine?
- The natural position of your spine with all the curves in your neck (cervical), mid-back (thoracic), and low back (lumbar). It allows for optimal shock absorption from external forces through any movement that you may make.
- When placing things into or removing them from your bags, remember that regardless of the weight, you need to lift with your legs. Use the proper mechanics mentioned in the 1st bullet point of this section.
Sleeping in a new environment
Sleeping on a new surface during travel can cause discomfort and change your regular sleeping pattern.
- Make sure your pillows are appropriately placed to support your neck, arms, legs, and to keep your spine in a comfortable alignment while you sleep. They may move while you rest, but starting in this position is a huge help.
- You can use extra blankets and pillows to give yourself a softer sleeping surface when necessary, too.
Get up and move!
The absolute best thing to do for your body is to move!
- These movements allow for the reduction of stiffness and pain in your muscles and joints and increase the flow of circulation and nutrients throughout your spinal column.
- On average, researchers recommend getting up and moving at least every 30 minutes, even if it’s only a short period of activity.
- Some recommended (and simple!) movements include taking frequent walks or performing gentle stretches to your neck and extremities to keep them from becoming tight. These are called “warm-ups” and are useful during travel and down-time. They also come in handy when participating in winter sports – or as one of many useful shoveling tips.
If you are injured, think carefully about the steps you’ll take toward recovery. There are ways to avoid further injuries. There are ways to encourage and promote healing. Be mindful of your body and what it tells you. Don’t overdo it and return to activity before you’re ready.
Travel Tips and Physical Therapy Sessions: They’re Better Together
These tips can go a long way in helping people while they travel, but sometimes, these simple exercises aren’t enough. When pain or discomfort lingers, it may be time to seek out the guidance of a PT professional like those with High Performance Physical Therapy. Finding someone is simple, and patients like you can begin by using the BetterPT Clinic Location tool or by downloading the Better PT app, which gives you access to clinics and appointments in the palm of your hand. For even more convenience, many physical therapy clinics near you offer telehealth services. This virtual appointment type (offered through the BetterTelehealth platform) makes it simple for you to connect with your therapist without ever leaving home.
Jessica Cole’s background in Physical Therapy has allowed her to work with clients with many different needs, goals and expectations. Her career practicing with the patients that depend on the team with High Performance Physical Therapy has allowed her to continue learning and evolving as a medical professional. She is experienced with all aspects of Physical Therapy and focuses on areas including neurology, pediatrics, and orthopedics.