Back Pain from Driving: 9 Tips to Help Your Back on a Road Trip

Back pain from driving can be a real problem on road trips. Follow our tips to save your back when you’re travelling.

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There are few feelings of freedom that compare to hitting the open road, with a fun destination ahead and new sights breezing by along the way. As soon as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many people stopped booking plane tickets and turned to cars and RVs as a more comfortable, safer mode of transportation to get their travel fix.

Back pain drivingHere are some tips to spare your back on a road trip.

With all of this road-tripping going on, back pain from driving can be a real problem.

Studies suggest that low back pain and hours behind the wheel can go hand in hand. Other studies have suggested that being sedentary or sitting too long can lead to back pain. A road trip isn’t your regular commute—it can be full days of driving, one right after the other, as you trek toward your destination.

Michael Suer, MD, assistant professor in the Department of Orthopedics and Rehabilitation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, agrees that a road trip can be tough on the body.

“While we live much of our lives in a flexed posture—sleeping curled up, sitting to eat, sitting at our desks, or watching television—the stress placed on your back while driving is dynamic in comparison to these static positions,” Dr. Suer says.

He continues, “Vehicles place different forces on our low back, such as accelerating, decelerating, swaying side to side, and even minor vibrations. Further, as the feet and legs are used in vehicle control, they are not able to be used to help stabilize the spine. The vibrations in particular can cause some individuals to have issues with their discs.”

Discomfort can happen whether you’re the driver or a passenger. And if you already have a diagnosed back condition, it can be worsened over the miles. In other words? The highway may take its toll—in more ways than one.

“It would be fair to say that any individual with back pain can have an increase in pain with driving, whether they suffer from postural imbalance, sciatica, or arthritis,” Dr. Suer notes.

We’ll take you through a typical road-trip day so you can learn how you can prevent back pain before, during, and after your travels.

Before Getting in the Car

Before heading out for the day, practice good prevention when it comes to your back.

“Prevention is likely the best way to prevent significant increases in back pain with driving,” Dr. Suer says. He recommends the following precautions:

  1. Before your road trip, consider purchasing some helpful accessories, such as memory foam or air-filled seat cushions. Dr. Suer says that if you specifically deal with tailbone pain in the car, a cushion with a tailbone cutout can provide relief.
  2. Optimize your seat back. He says, “The seat back should be placed just beyond upright from 100 to 110 degrees. Placing it more reclined than this can lead to a head-forward posture and neck pain.”
  3. Pay attention to ergonomics. “The seat itself should sit you close enough to the steering wheel to provide a relaxed upper body posture but balance this with being a safe distance away from the steering wheel. The seat should also be level up to around 5 degrees upward to provide support to your legs. When able to do so safely, feet should be placed flat on the floor with the knees around 90 degrees of bend,” Dr. Suer advises.
  4. You can create your own lumbar support for driving since most car seats lack it. Dr. Suer shares a simple fix: “While many commercial driving pillows are available, simply rolling up a sweatshirt and placing it in the small of your back can provide an easy solution.”

During the Car Ride

It’s official: you’ve hit the road. Keep an eye on the road, but don’t take focus off your back. Dr. Suer imparts words of wisdom while you clock those miles:

  1. If you’ll be driving for a stretch that’s more than 20 minutes, “consider slight changes in your seat position, which will slightly alter the forces on your spine,” Dr. Suer says. Driving longer than an hour? This is when short breaks are essential. Make a pit stop to stand, walk, and stretch the lower back, bending forward and leaning backward.
  2. Does your car have heated seats? Dr. Suer recommends turning this on to soothe a tight back. It’ll act like your heating pad at home.
  3. Here’s something you may have overlooked. Dr. Suer says, “Remove items from your pockets, especially men who carry their wallet in their back pocket as this can lead to sitting asymmetry.”

When You Stop for the Night

Whew! After a long day of driving, you’re ready to hit the sack. If you have another long day of driving ahead of you the next morning, use your time out of the car to continue preventing back pain.

  1. You might be pretty tired after a day of driving, but ideally, this isn’t the time to sit. “The best single thing to do after driving is to provide your body with the motion it has not had while driving. This would best be done with standing or walking and providing some gentle stretches.” This can include extension and side bending of the low back.
  2. Core exercises can also prove to be helpful. “Simple core exercises can provide relief; however, after particularly long or taxing drives, too strenuous of exercise when the body is fatigued may lead to more injury,” Dr. Suer warns.

If the Pain Continues After the Trip

If you’ve gone on a road trip and achieved a low amount of pain or even a pain-free experience, you’ll know that these tricks came in handy. But if the pain is nagging and didn’t get any better by trying out these tips, it might be time to see your doctor.

Dr. Suer says, “Minor aches and pains are common after road trips, but if you experience pain lasting longer than a few days or that significantly limits your function, you should seek medical advice.”

Updated on: 10/05/20
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Driving and Back Care
Lali Sekhon, MD, PhD, FAANS, FRACS, FACS
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