Plane trip tips

Traveling tips

Frequent flyer programs are tempting. Cheap tickets and perks here and there are good but back pain, neck pain, headaches, sciatica-like problems, and tension in the back certainly is not one of them! There was a time that we talked about work behind the desk as the main contributory factor to back pain but in today’s society, it is not just desk work that negatively impacts our back and spine.

What Causes Back Pain?

Lower back pain is one of the most commonly treated conditions in today’s society. With the sedentary lifestyle, either behind our computers, driving in traffic, or attending meetings/ school, the spine is one of the most deteriorated parts of the body. On top of all this, you’ve added frequent plane trips requiring pushing, pulling, and lifting heavy luggage plus sitting for hours in a less than ideal position, no wonder you have pain!

Back pain can be referring to pain in the lower back (lumbar) or mid-back thoracic. Acute back pain is that lasting for less than 1 month, sub-acute from 1-3 months, and chronic with more than 3 months in duration. It can range from mild to severe, constant or come and go, achy, sharp, numb or pins and needles. Most back and neck problems, however, come from muscles and ligaments, joints and nerves being overused and under stress.

If you are interested in the more specific causes of back pain and how to best treat it I suggest you read this blog otherwise, let’s move on to discuss the things you should do and what you should avoid as a frequent flyer to avoid back pain and not exacerbate any pre-existing conditions.

What To Do When Flying with Back Pain

When flying, there are some things to be aware of. With the sheer number of people flying every day and the number of delays, it is easy to sit for more than the number of hours on a plane. The best advice I can give is every chance you get, walk around, move, or simply shift your weight from side to side. Don’t get stuck in one position for too long.

Now let’s take this step by step.

How to Minimize the Amount of Damage From Flying:

  • Book your flights at off peak times to avoid the obvious.
  • Save the agony and book with no connections or flights with shorter layovers.
  • Select an aisle seat so you can easily get up, move around, or stretch during the flight.
  • Be aware that the very last row and the row in front of an exit row do not recline.
  • Get the carry-on/luggage with wheels that spin on all directions.
  • Push the carry-on or your luggage instead of pulling. It is easier on your shoulders and upper back.
  • Use both hands to push the luggage or carry-on and don’t care if it looks funny. Walking with a limp looks worse!
  • Pack light!!


When Boarding:

  • Remember you are with a carry-on or a luggage so give yourself enough room for the new ‘size’ you have. Don’t try to maneuver in tight places.
  • If you have to lift your luggage or carry-on, lift is stages! That means put your carry-on, for instance, on your chair and then on the overhead bin. Do the reverse when taking it out of the bin. Watch the video below on how to lift properly.
  • Bend your knees, engage your ‘barrel’ and use your leg muscles and the whole torso when lifting. Check out this video to see what I mean by ‘barrel’.
  • Make sure to minimize any twisting of the torso while lifting!

At Your Seat:

  • Sit all the way to the back of your seat and elongate your spine. Bend your hips and let your torso be against the back of the seat. 
  • Make sure your feet are flat on the floor and not trying to accommodate the bag you are storing under the front seat.
  • Use a travel pillow to allow your neck to rest.
  • Use your jacket or alternate the travel pillow for your neck to fill in the gap in your lower back. You can always buy those inflatable supports online too.
  • Don’t use the seat belt above or on your belly.

During The Flight:

  • Get up and move as much as possible! at least every 30-45 minutes on longer flights.
  • Get up and go to the back of the plane to stretch, if possible.
    • Seated push offs: Make a fist and try to push yourself off the seat while bending the head down. Of course, if you have issues like shoulder pain or have a hard time balancing yourself, then skip this one!
    • Figure 4 Stretch which is similar to the office version of Piriformis muscle stretch. Hold for 20 seconds and do 3-4 times on each side. (fast forward to 3:07 for this stretch).
  • Sitting hamstring stretch: Sit at the edge of your seat and straighten one leg in front of the body and then switch over to the other side
  • Hold both legs with the knees straight and hold for 30 seconds while you are seated all the way to the back and your spine is elongated.
  • Move your wrists, ankles, and neck in circles.
  • Do the neck exercises in the video below while seated to relieve neck tension and headaches. Since you can’t exactly lay on the floor and do the DNS Exercises we do here at the office, this is the next best thing.

What to Do When You Get Home After a Flight

It is easy to want to lay on the bed or couch and watch TV, but don’t make the mistake of getting stuck in one position for too long. Although, it is a good idea to relax, its best to lay on the floor on your back and do this!

Give yourself a chance to stretch your whole body. When it comes to stretching afterward you want to get the most out fo your stretch so it’s best not to stretch in isolation, but address the full body in one exercise. It is a good idea to stretch your hip flexors since they have overworked the whole time you sat. Here is a great hip flexor stretch that requires a neutral spine and address some of the shoulder and neck tension.

It’s easy to focus on your back and hips when wanting to stretch, but don’t forget about your shoulders!! Mobility issues in the shoulder joint heavily contribute to neck pain and stiffness. When on a plane in a cramped space you don’t get to move your shoulders through a full range of motion. So do the exercise above to get that much needed movement. If you want more functional movement exercises you should visit my Youtube Channel.

Little things add up and you should not disregard the long-term impact of your lifestyle on some of your major health issues or concerns. You are the Designer and the Director of your own life so design and direct it the way you wish to live it. If you need help with any pain or discomfort despite having done all discussed above, contact me for an appointment.

Dr. Shakib