More than 115 million people took road trips to visit loved ones last holiday season. That was pre-Covid. This year, exponentially more people will be driving long distances in cars to avoid crowded airports and airplanes. There are folks who might be driving cross country or down the northeast coast and spending in excess of 10 hours in a cramped car. Even for those who don’t normally have back pain, this type of situation can cause it.
Fortunately, there are a few smart ways you can avoid or mitigate back pain while driving this holiday season. We've tapped NYC Area Orthopedic and Spinal Surgeon Dr. Gbolahan Okubadejo for his help.
Get comfortable immediately
Take the time to make sure you're comfortable from the moment you set off on your trip. Discomfort at the beginning of your trip can turn into nagging pain later.
Keep your back pockets empty.
Sitting on your wallet, phone, or anything else may throw your spine out of alignment.
Mind your posture
Position your knees slightly higher than your hips, and keep your chin pulled in so that your head sits straight on top of your spine.
Sit a comfortable distance from the steering wheel.
Sit with your breastbone at least 10 inches from the steering wheel, and keeping your hands on the wheel at 9 and 3 (the sides rather than the top of the wheel). But don’t sit too far away either, which can cause you to reach too far for the wheel and places more stress on the lumbar spine, neck, shoulder, and wrists.
Shift in your seat periodically
When possible, try to move a little in your seat. Even 10 seconds of movement and stretching is preferable than sitting still. At a minimum adjust your seat and change your position slightly every 15 to 20 minutes. Pump your ankles to keep the blood flowing and provide a slight stretch in your hamstring muscles. Any movement that is safe to do in the car will help you alleviate back strain.
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Make your ride as smooth as possible
Bumps in the road can jar your spine and increase pain. For a smoother ride, consider:
Aim for a Smooth Ride
Replacing worn shocks to limit the bounce in the car
Replacing worn tires to reduce vibration or shaking
Sit on a car seat pillow or coccyx cushion to provide more padding between you and the road.
Sitting in one position in a car will stiffen up your back muscles and can lead to achiness and possibly muscle spasms. Everyone should ideally take at least a 15-minute break for every 2 hours of driving. If you’re prone to back pain, you may want to take breaks more frequently, such as every 30 to 60 minutes.
What to do if you’re in pain
Cold therapy can help reduce inflammation and swelling. Consider bringing a cooler to store reusable ice packs or other cold therapy packs.
Heat therapy can help increase blood flow and relax the muscles. Various types of heat therapy are available to buy, such as heat wraps or heat pads.
Note about application: It is recommended to apply ice or heat for only 15 or 20 minutes at a time, then give your skin a rest to recover for at least a couple hours before the next application.
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