Back Care on Airplanes

How to Prevent Back Pain on the Plane

Peer Reviewed

While flying can be exciting, it can also be hard on your low back. This article has tips on how to take care of your spine while travelling—and make it through the airport and flight without back pain.

Just consider the travel experience: there's the standing in the security line, shifting your weight back and forth as you plan your strategy for getting your shoes off and everything on the conveyor belt as fast as possible. Then there's the waiting at the gate in those hard (usually) chairs.

Back Pain Prevention Tips while TravellingWhen you fly, you probably carry more than you do in a typical day: especially since airlines started charging for checked luggage, people are trying to carry on more. Carrying that extra load can put a strain on your spine.

And all that is before you even get on the plane. Considering safety regulations and space restricitons, the airlines do try to make the seats comfortable, but let's face it: back in economy, the seats don't recline as far as you'd like, the headrest seems to push your neck forward, and the seats aren't known for their cushiness.

Back in 2008, SpineUniverse ran a very interesting survey on back pain and air travel.  We found that 88% of people experienced some level of back pain and/or neck pain after a typical flight.  (You can read the whole back pain on airplanes article, if you want.)  This probably comes as no surprise to you and leaves you wondering:  So, is it possible to travel and not develop back pain? Yes, it is. Below are several back pain prevention tips to use the next time you fly.

How to Prevent Back Pain while Flying

  • Use a pillow to support your head and neck. An inflatable air pillow works well, it's compact when deflated, and once inflated you can snooze and avoid waking with a stiff neck.
  • Use an airplane pillow or a rolled blanket to make a support for your lower back. Rather than putting this support completely across the back of the seat, which will decrease your seat-clearance, try to use the airplane pillows to either side of your lower back, or try to make an inverted T with them. 
  • Keep adequate space under the seat in front of you for your feet. If you have a larger bag, put this in the overhead storage bin. If you have a smaller bag, position this centrally with your feet to either side.
  • Keep your feet in front of you at all times, try to stretch out your legs, and keep your feet and legs moving. This will aid circulation and reduce fatigue, as well as decreasing your chances of suffering a potentially fatal blood clot.
  • Stand up and move around the airplane as often as possible. On a long-haul flight try to walk the aisle at least every 30 minutes. Choosing an aisle seat will help to make this easier because you will not have to disturb fellow passengers.
  • Drink water rather than alcohol, coffee, or tea. Flying dehydrates the body because of the very low humidity levels in the pressurized air cabin. Alcohol, tea, and coffee are diuretics that also encourage dehydration. Water will re-hydrate the body and help to prevent circulatory problems.

Following these back pain prevention tips may help you arrive at your next destination ready to explore or lead that board meeting or enjoy time with your family.

Updated on: 12/04/14
Brian R. Subach, MD
For frequent flyers back and neck pain resulting from multiple and prolonged exposure to airline seats presents a significant problem. By using the tips outlined in this section, one may avoid some of the discomfort and fatigue associated with travel.