Are you traveling this holiday season? Unlike last year, there’s a lot more people getting out of town to see friends and family they didn’t get to see last year. Personally, I love to travel. But what I don’t love is the back and neck pain that often comes with it.
The good news is you can prevent – or significantly minimize – most back and neck symptoms with just a few easy tips. Whether you're traveling by train, plane, or automobile – here are some of my top tips for easing back and neck pain when you travel.
Walking is not only great exercise but it’s well known for helping ease back and neck stiffness. Our bodies like to be upright and generally don’t like to be still and sitting for very long. If you’re flying somewhere this holiday season, walk around the terminal while waiting for your flight instead of sitting. Don’t take the people mover – get those extra steps in and walk instead. If you’re driving somewhere long distance, make a point to stop along the way and be sure to get out and walk a little. Bonus – walking is great for hip and knee stiffness too.
When it comes to back and neck pain – people don’t really think of hydration as something that makes a difference. The discs between our vertebrae need fluid to do their job – which is to provide cushion and shock absorption. They can get dry and brittle when not properly hydrated which can exacerbate back and neck pain. When you add travel to the mix, which involves a lot more sitting than you might do on a normal day, you put even more stress on your discs. So remembering to drink enough water when you travel is very important. Opting for foods like watermelon, lettuce, spinach and soups can help you stay hydrated as well as avoiding beverages that contain caffeine and alcohol.
If you make a point to walk when you can, and drink plenty of water, interrupting your sitting is going to naturally happen and not be that difficult. As I mentioned already, our bodies were not meant to be sitting for prolonged periods and it’s one of the top reasons so many people suffer from unnecessary back and neck pain. When you sit, there is more pressure on your vertebral discs. But more than that, they start to weaken in certain areas from too much sitting – making you more susceptible for a disc bulge or herniation. Prolonged sitting also puts extra stretch on your muscles. Over time this contributes to them losing their elasticity – making them weaker and more painful – and easier to strain. My general rule is to always interrupt your sitting at least once every 30 min. This interruption acts as a reset button for your spine and helps to minimize the cumulative forces responsible for all of the problems I just mentioned.
If you absolutely can’t stand up and interrupt your sitting – the next best thing is to move and stretch in your seat. While it’s not as ideal as standing up – it’s certainly better than just sitting there. My two favorite stretches to do while sitting are 1) the chin tuck and 2) thoracic extension.
To perform the chin tuck, you bring your nose and chin back toward you in a straight line – creating what looks like a “double chin”. The best way to describe this move is to do what you would do if someone you didn’t like was coming at you to give you a big ole’ sloppy kiss.
To stretch your thoracic spine, place two hands behind your neck, fingers interlaced, elbows forward and toward each other (not out like a sit-up position), and tuck your chin slightly downward. Keeping your neck and elbows locked in this position – lift your chest and elbows straight up to the ceiling. If you’ve never done this before, it’s probably going to feel tight and maybe even hurt a little. But once you practice, it feels so good and it’s easy to do when you’re stuck sitting down. This little bit of movement helps lubricate your spine and avoid stiffness and injury.
Our spine is made up of distinct curves for a very good reason. They are designed to balance forces and sustain shock – and it’s best if you can maintain them. When you sit, the curve in your lower back (lumbar spine) decreases, or sometimes disappears all together. While it’s perfectly acceptable to sit like this for small increments of time (remember the 30 min rule), your spine will not like this after several hours. Plus, your neck responds by changing it’s curve to a “forward head” position as well. One of the best things you can do is use a cylindrical lumbar roll to help maintain the natural curve in your lumbar spine. Place it right at your lower back any time you’re sitting and you’ll find that your back and neck have a lot less strain.
If you’re traveling over the holidays – give one or more of these tips a try. Even if you can ease your back or neck pain by 30% it will be helpful.
Dr. Carrie Jose, Physical Therapist and Pilates expert, owns CJ Physical Therapy & Pilates in Portsmouth and writes for Seacoast Media Group. To get in touch, or get a free copy of her Guide to Easing Back Pain and Stiffness, email her at email@example.com or call 603-380-7902
This article originally appeared on Portsmouth Herald: Health and Wellness: Traveling for the holidays? Tips to ease back and neck pain
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