Back Care on Airplanes

6 tips to help reduce neck and back pain while flying

Peer Reviewed

Traveling by airplane is often not fun or easy, and it can be hard on your neck and low back. 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. And all that happens before you even get on the plane.
Woman in airplane cabin using smart device listening to music on headphones.Preparing for air travel requires more than packing your suitcase or carry-on bag. Consider what you can do to help prevent or manage inflight back pain. Photo Source: boarding the plane, you may face lifting a heavy carry-on bag into an overhead compartment. Then there are the seats. Unless you are in first class, most likely you will find the seats smaller and uncomfortable with minimal leg or elbow room. The seats do not recline as far as you'd like and the headrest seems to push your neck forward.

How to Prevent Back Pain While Flying

Tip #1. Keep your body height in mind. If you are tall, consider booking an aisle seat for the flight. People who are short, and whose feet may not touch the floor when seated, may want to consider bringing a collapsable foot elevation device. Be sure to check with the airline prior to going to the airport to make sure the device you choose it approve to bring onboard.

Tip #2. If you have a neck or back pain problem—bring your medication (prescription, over-the-counter) with you in the prescription's bottle or over-the-counter labeled container. Being prepared ahead of time may help to make the entire travel experience less uncomfortable.

Tips #3. 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.

Tip #4. 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 (called, deep vein thrombosus, or DVT).

Tips #5. 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.

Tips #6. 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 rehydrate 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.

Commentary By 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.

Updated on: 04/02/19
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Plane Speaking: Your flight plan to avoid back pain
Brian R. Subach, MD
Spinal Neurosurgeon
Subach Spinal Solutions, PLC
Arlington, VA
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