Between packing, the chaos of airport security, flight delays and the ever-present (increasingly likely, these days) threat of lost luggage, traveling can be pretty stressful. And if you suffer from chronic back pain—which approximately 39-percent of American adults do, according to a recent study—it can also be really painful. On long-haul flights in economy seats (which weirdly seem to be getting smaller?) where leg room is scant, chronic back pain and stiffness can feel like an unavoidable part of your journey. To spare you the aches and pains, we tapped chiropractors to share their top product picks (and expert tips) for preventing flare ups while flying.
Tips for managing chronic back pain while flying
Mind your posture
Keeping your posture in check is your first line of defense against chronic back pain—especially in cramped plane seats. “Try to sit with your back against the seat and your feet flat on the floor,” recommends Dr. Anjali Agrawal, a chiropractor and nutritionist based in the Bay Area. “Avoid crossing your legs, as it can strain your back.” She says you’ll also want to tuck a pillow behind your back if your feet aren’t supported. “Additionally, place a pillow under your glutes to try to keep your hip position level with or slightly higher than your knee position,” she advises (we’ll get into the best pillows for this later).
Get up and move around when possible
“One of the best things you can do is get up and move around the aisle,” says Dr. Berch Fritz , a chiropractor and clinic director at Kaizo Health. “Take breaks from sitting for long periods of time by standing up and going to the bathroom or just stretching in the aisle.” Aim to take a walk down the aisle and stretch your back every 20-30 minutes if possible. Because we tend to slump forward while seated, chiropractor Dr. Keith Sparks says stretching backwards will help relieve tension. “It’s the slightly rounded posture over time which causes distress to the lower back,” he explains. “Stretching the back in the opposite direction helps to balance the amount of time under tension between the two positions—yin and yang.”
Choose an aisle seat
As much as we’d all like to fly exclusively in first class, my bank account could never. So chiropractors recommend getting the next best seat—one that’s on the aisle, or with extra leg room. “An aisle seat tends to be more convenient for stretching and moving around, while a seat with extra legroom can help you find a more comfortable position,” says Dr. Agrawal. This means you’ll probably want to book as early as possible to snag a good seat. And if someone on board asks you to switch, don’t think twice about (politely) declining!
Chiropractor-approved products to buy before flying
“The most important thing you should have with you on a flight, if you have chronic back pain, is a good lumbar support pillow, says Dr. Matthew Cavanaugh, DC a chiropractor based in Lafayette, Louisiana. “It’ll help keep your spine in proper alignment with good posture while in the air or in the terminal during a long layover.” And practitioners across the board say the McKenzie Lumbar Roll is the best you can get. “It’s a great tool to provide additional support in the lower back and is extremely portable.” says Dr. Fritz. Plus, the handy strap means it can be used nearly anywhere—from your plane seat to your office chair and car seat.
“Stay hydrated during the flight by bringing a refillable water bottle,” advises Dr. Agrawal. “Dehydration can exacerbate muscle tightness and discomfort.” We love the Owala Free Sip while traveling because 1. It’s basically indestructible and 2. It’s truly leak-proof. The built-in straw allows for easy sipping while the FreeSip spout lets you chug freely if you wish. What’s more, the carry-loop can be hung onto a backpack while you trek through the airport. Oh, and it comes in a bunch of fun colors.
Available sizes: S-XL
“Pack compression socks to improve circulation and minimize swelling in the legs,” recommends chiropractor Philip Baines of Active Care Chiropractic. These knee-high compression socks from Comrad are one of W+G’s favorites for traveling—they’re made of a moisture-wicking blend of nylon and spandex, and help reduce swelling, bringing much needed relief to your legs while flying.
For an easy, DIY back massage during your flight, chiropractor Dr. Matt Tanneberg says all you need is a tennis ball. “A tennis ball is a light and portable option to travel with and it helps you work on any knots in your muscles,” he explains. “You can place the tennis ball behind you while seated and put pressure on the spots of your body that feel like a bruise.” Gently rolling your back against the tennis ball will help relieve muscle tension, and when you’re done you just chuck it in your personal item. Genius!
Just like a lumbar pillow to support your back, chiropractors say that neck pillows are equally important to maintaining your posture and alignment. “Any extra support is important since sitting for long periods can fatigue the postural muscles, which leads to increased joint stress,” says Dr. Kevin DC, director of chiropractic operations at The Joint Chiropractic. The Cabeau Neck Pillow has over 4,000 5-star ratings on Amazon and it’s clear to see why. It has bolstered sides to keep your neck supported from all angles, it’s stuffed with cushiony memory foam, and it attaches to your seat’s headrest for maximum stability. The cherry on top? It rolls up into its carrying case and hooks onto luggage for easy transport.
“Someone with chronic back pain may find sitting for long periods very painful. Topical creams can give some temporary relief to make the trip bearable,” says Dr. Kevin. Enter Bengay—one of the most trusted pain relieving creams around. The non-greasy cream relies on menthol, camphor and methyl salicylate to deliver quick and reliable back pain relief. And it has a refreshing cooling effect that feels great upon applying.
“Consider using a hip support belt to provide extra stability and support for your lower back during the flight,” says Dr. Agrawal. “Unlike a lumbar brace, the sacroiliac belt can be worn for long stretches of time without risk of muscle atrophy.” This wraparound option from Amazon helps tackle the pain and inflammation that comes with sitting for long hours. A dual-belt system allows you to customize your compression level depending on your needs. And it’s designed with silicone strips along the inside to keep it from sliding up and down during your flight. Did we mention it has over 10,000 5-star ratings?!
To combat stiff plane seats, “consider bringing a portable seat cushion designed to provide extra support and comfort for your back,” advises Dr. Agrawal. This one is foldable, making it an effortless travel essential—and it’s made of a firm gel and memory foam material to help relieve pressure from your lower back, support circulation, and optimize your posture. Flight attendants love it too, according to a 5-star review.
Easy to use and even easier to pack, resistance bands are the space-saving must-have you need in your carry-on, according to chiropractors. “Resistance bands can assist in stretching and relieving tension during layovers or while waiting for your flight,” says Dr. Agrawal. “They can be useful to help activate leg and arm muscles to get blood flowing better and increased muscle activity can relieve some of the stress on your joints,” Dr. Kevin agrees. Plus, they’re a great way to sneak a workout in once you’ve arrived at your destination.
A warm compress could provide temporary relief for your back pain while flying, but finding one that’s TSA-approved can be dicey. Dr. Cavanaugh recommends opting for travel-friendly hand warmers as an easy solution. “The hand warmers can be activated and used as small heating pads for your lower back when you are in a bind,” he explains. “The warmth of the hand warmer will dilate blood vessels and pull more blood flow to the area of pain which will promote healing. This increase in blood flow will help soothe tight muscles and reduce pain and discomfort.”
Available sizes: 5-12
“Opt for comfortable shoes with good arch support to reduce the impact on your lower back when walking around the airport,” recommends Dr. Agrawal. Hoka’s Bondi 8 are a back and foot-friendly sneaker beloved by podiatrists and shoppers alike for their supportive, ultra-cushiony design and shock-absorbing soles that allow for a soft and bouncy step.
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