With it now being the norm to commute over an hour to work every day, twice a day, it’s no surprise I am seeing more patients coming in complaining of neck pain while driving or lower back pain while driving or both!

While driving may not be the root cause of your issues, it is one of those daily activities that “feeds” any pre-existing conditions. Continue reading this blog for tips to correct driving ergonomics and reduce neck pain and back pain while driving.

Neck Pain, Headaches, and Commuting 

If you are someone who is predisposed to getting neck pain and headaches, driving can definitely be a trigger, which is why I evaluate each of my patients getting in/out of their car and their driving form. Little things can add up and make a difference.

The first thing I suggest you do is to assess your headrest. I am finding that with some newer model cars the headrest is designed with a forward slant that ends up pushing your head forward as you drive. If this is something that is adjustable in your car then adjust it to be more straight. If you can’t adjust it maybe try switching the headrest with the passenger seat one if they are shaped differently, or order a new one! 

This is a very important adjustment to make, otherwise, your neck is not able to rest in a neutral position, and if you already have a forward head posture this accentuates the problem. A forward head posture is when your head starts shifting in front of the rest of your body. This is a common presentation is those who work behind a computer and results in neck pain, shoulder pain, and headaches.

Use the video below to make some adjustments and give your head and neck the space needed to allow for more mobility. 

Keep in mind, these adjustments will not fix any pre-existing pathological posture or conditions, but helps not to make matters worse. The exercise shown below is a Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization (DNS) that we do with patients who have neck pain or headaches to correct the dysfunctional movement.

Avoid These Things When Driving to Have Less Pain

If you want to minimize the occurrence of neck pain, shoulder tension, and lower back pain when driving here are some things to avoid.

  1. Don’t lean on the armrest: When you’re sitting in traffic it can be very tempting to lean over and park yourself on the armrest, but this actually creates a lot of imbalance in the soft tissue of your torso surrounding your lumbar and thoracic spine and also contributes to tension in the shoulders. 
  2. Hanging your arm out the window: In this position, your arm is propped up in an unnatural position in which the shoulder sits close to the ear. Even though your arm is resting, the muscles in this area are stuck in a shortened state and are constantly receiving the signal from your brain to be active. This adds stress and creates tension in muscles that are already so over-used from typing and mousing when using the computer.
  3. Holding the steering wheel too high: Now, the DMV may say to hold the steering wheel at 10 and 2, but I disagree. Why? The same reason why your desk height needs to be adjusted, it’s too high! This, and being behind the computer all day, is why your shoulders are always creeping up towards your ears and you always have to remind yourself to relax them. Try holding the wheel at 4 and 8 and see if this helps.

How to Relieve Headache and Neck Pain When Driving? 

Headaches are no fun, and to get them while driving is even worse. The most common type of headache is a tension headache or cervicogenic headache, meaning it is a result of tension or imbalance in the muscles of the neck. So how can you address tight neck muscles while driving? 

As you’re driving and you feel a headache coming on try what I show in the video below. 

Gliding your neck back is not about moving your head back, but since you’re having tension and getting headaches there’s a good chance that your head is sitting in a forward posture. This failed posture in the head and neck typically results from excessive computer, cell phone, and any other digital device use. 

With a forward head posture, the muscles in the back of your neck become overstretched and are in a constant state of engagement as they attempt to correct the position. This means you end up using the wrong muscles to hold your head and neck up. As you glide your neck back you facilitate the use of the correct muscles and relieve the tension of those over-engaged and weak muscles. 

This can be done as you’re stuck in traffic on the freeway or at every red light.

Whether you get headaches in your car, at home, or at work this is a good exercise for you. If you want to learn more about the causes of headaches and how to get rid of them I suggest you check out this blog I wrote exactly on that: How To Get Rid of Headache Without Medication. 

How to Alleviate Lower Back Pain While Driving

If you want to avoid lower back pain when driving the first thing to do is correct your positioning. Make sure you are sitting with your tuchus scooted all the way to the back of your seat then move your seat close enough to the pedals so you’re not having to stretch your leg so far out to reach. This is a good way to avoid knee pain as well. 

Another seat adjustment is to make sure you don’t have it positioned all the way upright. It’s a good idea to lean the seat back a bit, not because you’ll be leaning back into it, but to give yourself some more freedom to move and give your muscles the chance to hold you up. 

The most important thing for when you’re having lower back pain is what you do when you’re not in the car and how you get out of the car! The slight twist or rotation can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Skip to the 3min mark of the video below to see how you should be getting out of your car when dealing with back pain.

After you’ve adjusted your car, take the next step to tackle your lower back pain. Most people with lower back pain present with too much of an arch in the lower back and the video below shows what you need to do to start working that.

Should You Use a Lumbar Support? 

Something I get asked about a lot is whether or not to use a lumbar support. A lumbar support can be a good tool when used correctly, but is not a one size fits all situation. I prefer the mesh lumbar support that you can slide up and down your seat allowing you to alternate between your lower back or the lower portion of your mid-back. This is not necessary for everyone given that everyone is different and the condition of the lumbar curvature can vary. 

Whether you know you have a pre-existing condition or are not sure what is going on, do remember that little things add up, and taking away what “feeds” the problem will not magically cure your pain, but is a necessary lifestyle adjustment in the process of what it takes to be pain-free. 

If your lower back pain, neck pain, or headaches still persist and you need help, contact the office and make an appointment.

Dr. Shakib