Many airlines have high uncomfortable seat ratings based on passenger assessments, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that flying can contribute to spine pain. Sitting in uncomfortable seats, managing the stress of traveling, sitting or standing too long, and sleeping in awkward or unnatural positions are among the many possible contributing factors to airplane-related back and/or neck discomfort. Here are some things you can do to make your next flying experience less stressful on your spine.
Do some planning and talk to your Santa Monica spine surgeon first before your trip. If you have a chronic spine condition, the doctor may be able to provide a letter you can present to the airline so special accommodations can be made. Such arrangements might include:
• Additional pillows, cushions, or blankets
• An upgrade to a class with more legroom and seat space
• Permission to rest on the airplane floor, if necessary
• The ability to walk around (when it’s safe to do so) during the flight
When possible, book flights at times of the day that won’t be excessively busy, or try to find flights that aren’t fully packed so you’re not being accidentally bumped or jostled. If you call ahead of time to make arrangements, airlines may be more likely to:
• Provide wheelchair assistance
• Arrange for special shuttle service or elevator platforms for boarding
• Grant permission for a non-medical person to help you board
When preparing for your flight, don’t make any one bag too heavy. Also, make sure to bring your medications and prescription slips to minimize issues with the airline as you go through security. If you have any specially designed pillows, cushions, or back support braces or belts, bring those along as well. Ask a flight attendant for a helping hand with putting things into the overhead compartment so you don’t strain spine-supporting muscles.
If possible, pick an aisle seat so you can get up and move around as much as possible during the flight. If you explain to the flight staff why you’re moving around so much, they may allow you to go to a private area to do some quick stretches. When you have to stay in your seat, the following support accessories may be helpful:
• Neck pillows
• Lumbar (lower back) rolls
• Seat pans
Tip: When seated, maintain a right angle with your knees and prop your feet up to take stress off of your lower spine.
For times when your spine pain spikes while on your flight, use a heat pack or wrap to loosen stiff muscles and get your circulation going. If you have pain from sitting for too long, use an ice pack to ease the inflammation in the affected area. Minimize your odds of being forced into a position that isn’t good for your spine by reclining your seat as far as you can without disrupting fellow passengers.
Airplane cabins are sometimes dry, which could make you dehydrated without being fully aware of it. Without sufficient hydration, your spine’s discs won’t be as spongy and you’ll be more likely to experience pain from long periods of sitting. Either bring your own supply of drinking water, or politely ask flight attendants for water periodically throughout your flight.
Keep your mind from drifting to thoughts of your spine pain by making an effort to stay mentally focused during your flight. Some people with back pain prefer to look out the window to let their minds drift, while others opt to stay preoccupied with in-flight entertainment, a hobby like knitting, or a favorite book. You may also benefit from techniques such as:
• Mental anesthesia – A process where you imagine you just received an anesthetic injection in your lower back or applied a soothing ice pack to your sore spot
• Mindful meditation – You focus on your areas of discomfort without judging thoughts or sensations
• Relaxation/controlled breathing – A technique where you focus and take deep breaths to relax and de-stress
• Visual meditation – You simply close your eyes and think pleasant thoughts or visualize a relaxing location.
When you get to your destination, try to stretch and walk around to relax your spine-supporting muscles. When sleeping at a hotel, resort, or family member’s home, strategically use pillows under your neck or between your knees to retain your spine’s alignment. Numerous studies also suggest yoga can enhance back-related functioning and make it easier to do common vacation-related activities involving walking, standing, or climbing steps. Consider taking some classes before you leave for your next trip if your doctor says it’s okay.
Whether you’re experiencing recurring spine pain or another spine-related issue, get in touch with The Spine Institute. Our professional surgeons can diagnose the root cause of the pain and determine whether you need spinal fusion or an alternative to spinal fusion. Santa Monica residents who want to schedule an in-person evaluation can call us at 310-828-7757.