A recovering back pain sufferer, the author is qualified in Reiki, has studied meditation, and is interested in all healing therapies.
Traveling With a Bad Back
Dealing with back pain conditions and sciatica symptoms can affect all areas of your life, and this is also true of travel plans and vacations. Coping with back pain on a daily basis can be miserable, stressful, and isolating, and a change of scene can really help.
We all need a holiday and if you are coping with back pain, sciatica, backache, as well as the associated stress and anxiety, you may well need one more than most. If you have back problems, though, you may be thinking it is easier to stay at home. For many of us with back pain and sciatica symptoms just the thought of a strange bed, a long journey, and a new routine just doesn't seem worth it.
Part of my back pain story is that with the onset of ruptured discs and degenerative disc disease with severe sciatica in both legs I gave up travel and holidays—and so did my family. That was just a miserable time for us all. Then I thought there must be a way...
When traveling with back issues there are some things you need to bear in mind, and some things that will make it all a little easier on you.
This article aims to give some hints and tips to make traveling by plane and those long journeys by car with your bad back a better experience for you, as well as your back.
Traveling by Plane: Before and During the Flight
Whether it is a short trip or a long-haul flight, here are some tried and tested back pain travel tips.
1. Before you travel with your bad back
- First it is important you contact your doctor or healthcare provider to see if you are safe to travel with your back condition.
- Check you can get proper travel insurance and do shop around and make sure you are well covered. It is important you take the proper insurance for your needs.
- If you require medication for any back condition and for pain make sure you carry enough for the duration of your travels and take some extra in case of delays. Ensure you carry your medications in your hand luggage and in their original labelled containers. Check with airline before booking your flights for the latest regulations on this. Do take all your back care medications and anything else that helps your back pain and sciatic nerve symptoms, like heat pads, with you in hand luggage.
- If you are flying try to book an aisle seat. This makes it so much easier for when you need to get in and out, gives you slightly more room if you need to stretch out a bit and means you won’t have to bother other people so much.
- Do tell the airline all your needs, including any equipment you need with you for the journey and holiday and if you need any assistance boarding.
- If you are travelng alone, inform the airline if you will need assistance with luggage, getting around the airport or anything else.
- Pack as lightly as possible, especially if you are carrying your luggage. If possible use suitcases with wheels; they are great if you have a bad back. You may be able to buy some things you need like shampoo, soap, lotions etc when you get there. Check out the clothes washing facilities and then pack accordingly.
- Pack some relaxation music, meditation tapes or stress reduction CD's to use on the plane. They will help you relax more and ease tension and stress which can exacerbate pain. Do try them out before hand so you know the effect they have on you.
- Check your vacation destination. Is it easy for you to get around? If you find steps difficult are there any you will have to negotiate? What are the medical facilities? How much walking will you need to do to get around? How far is your destination from the airport? Will there be a long car or coach journey? You need to know what you can handle comfortably with your back problems and book accordingly.
2. While waiting for your transport
- If you find sitting aggravates your pinched sciatic nerve symptoms and back ache, keep moving about before your journey. You will have a lot of sitting to do so take the opportunity to walk about, stand up and stretch. Do not sit down unless necessary.
- Give yourself plenty of time to get to your airport. You want to arrive in plenty of time. You do not want to be getting stressed and rushing. Get there a little earlier than you need to then you will remain relaxed.
3. During the flight
- Drink lots of water on the flight. Particularly if you are taking back pain medication and as you are at altitude your body will easily get dehydrated which is not good for anyone and especially not if you have back pain and disc problems. However the easy solution is to keep drinking water and to avoid tea, coffee and alcohol as these only dehydrate you further.
- Move around as much as possible and at least once an hour get out of your seat and walk up and down the aisles. If you are following a back care stretching and strengthening back pain exercise system then try to do some of these. I always do mine on the plane and it has not caused any problems but i do ask first. Do be courteous to other passengers but I find it perfectly possible to do the standing ones without causing any inconvenience in the aisles or in the galley part if you request politely of the cabin crew at times when it is not too busy.
- Wear clothing that allows you to move freely. Do not wear anything constrictive or heavy.
- Try not to fall asleep. This can be difficult but it is better to stay awake and move than to fall asleep and be in an uncomfortable position which may aggravate your back pain. If you feel you may need to sleep take a headrest cushion with you and request additional pillows.
- When in your seat, use the pillows and take a lumbar support if you need to help you get in the most comfortable position you can. Airline seats were not designed for people with back pain but there is a lot you can do with blankets and pillows to make yourself less uncomfortable. If it helps you put your feet on a raised area to bring your knees and hips in a better alignment, you will need to experiment with this.
- Do ask for assistance; do not try to struggle with putting luggage in the overhead bins etc.
What About Those Long Car Journeys?
Many of us will be driving for long distances to reach our destinations. When I had severe back pain and sciatica symptoms I found driving to be the task that was the most difficult for me. I needed to drive, so I tried to work out what might be the things that would help me to be able to drive with the least amount of stress on my back.
One of the main difficulties with the whole process of driving is that you are essentially sitting still in a fairly confined space for long stretches at a time with little or no back movement. Often one foot is more active than the other as you accelerate, and one hip can be pushed into an unnaturally higher position for long periods of time. In my experience few car seats are designed with the back pain sufferer in mind.
Here are some suggestions to make the long drives easier on you and your back.
- Try out different driving time limits to suit you. You may need a break every hour, test out what works for you. Do get out of the car, walk around, do any back pain relief stretches and just move around for about 10 -15 minutes. If you are stopping at a service station do not sit in the café but move and walk around first.
- Do not carry your mobile phone or wallet in your back pocket. If you do it can create an abnormal sitting position tilting one hip higher which may cause you to have problems.
- If your car has a lumbar support which is adjustable that is good but if not a lumbar support cushion will work as well to give extra support for your bad back. If you are hiring a car you can check this out beforehand or bring your own cushion to custom your seat.
- Try using a heat pad to ease back pains and sciatica symptoms. Heat pads can be thin enough to be comfortable when driving. They deliver a constant therapeutic heat which can be good to ease back pain and sciatica. Some cars may have heated seats which can help.
- If on your own car or when hiring a car the cars steering wheel tilts this may make it easier for you to get in and out of with back issues.
- Power steering is wonderful and will help you a lot if you have upper or lower back pain and sciatica. Most cars do have this now but do check.
- When hiring a car check out the seat controls and headrests and their adjustability. The more adjustable they are the better the chance it will be more comfortable for you to drive.
- Try to share the driving whenever possible
- Do any back care stretches you have been given before you start the journey, anytime you can during the journey, in breaks and after the journey.
- Drink plenty of water during the journey; it is easy to get dehydrated which is not good for you or your back. Try to eat healthy nutritious snacks.
- Try to maintain a good driving posture; this is easier if you are taking regular breaks.
- After the journey has ended, get a warm bath or shower for about 20 minutes to relax you and your muscles. In addition a relaxing massage or Reiki treatment may be beneficial.
At Your Destination: Caring for Your Back
- If your destination is a long drive from the airport do consider staying in a nearby hotel/motel for one night so you can relax, do any back pain exercises you have been given and get in the pool if there is one. I have found this invaluable and make it so much easier to tolerate longer flights and car journeys.
- Pace yourself. Treat your back well, build in rest times and times to do any back care stretches you need to do. A good solid program of stretching and strengthening exercises may be able to help you with back issues.
- No one knows your back like you do and it is your job to be aware of its needs.
- Make yourself aware of the location of the nearest health provider just in case. If you have a history of back issues and especially if on medication you may want to carry a brief paper just simply detailing your history and any tests and back care treatments or back surgery you have had.
- Do watch out for activities that are advised against for people with back pain or disc problems. It is often in the small print so be careful. Ask in advance of booking trips how long you will be sat in a coach or car so you can plan accordingly. If it helps you take a lumbar support or small pillow with you to make you more comfortable.
- In your bedroom use all the pillows to make your bed as comfortable as possible and ask for more if you need them. The thing I find hardest is leaving my memory foam mattress behind but I find lots of pillows and a blanket or towel under my hips for support helps my back a lot.
- If there is a pool and it is safe for you to do so, use it. Water therapy helps many people with back pain. Do check with your doctor first.
- When on holiday it is great to have the change of routine. However, do keep up with any back pain exercises and medications you need to do. This is not the time to cut back on what you need to keep your back healthy. Continue to drink more water, have good nutrition and look after your back.
Enjoy your travels!
Back Pain Resources
- Flying With Disability
Flying with Disability gives impartial information and advice to anyone who has a disability and wants to travel by plane. They hope it will also fulfill a role for disabled flyers to share their experiences of flying with each other.
- Spine Universe
Huge resource about back pain. Detailed educational information.Very Informative and educational material all about the spine.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
Love to hear from you :)
Lana on May 13, 2017:
I'm only 18 years old and I suffer from severe back pain. I struggle with car journey no matter how far of a distance. I have my seat positioned upright but nothing seems to help. I am looking to see my gp for treatment options..
Mommyof3 on February 14, 2011:
Try a Tush Cush or a Car Cush for traveling by plane or car. The Tush-Cush orthopedic seat cushion is scientifically designed to relieve and prevent back pain, numb buttocks and other discomforts associated with sitting. The unique cutout section of the cushion suspends the tailbone providing comfort and relief to areas sensitive to sitting. The wedge shape tilts the pelvis forward to restore the spine's natural lumbar curve. It's recommended by doctors and physical therapists across the country.
PurpleOne from Canada on May 31, 2010:
Thanks for the great tips! I am suffering from sciatica for the first time and it's the most pain I've ever been in but thankfully I'm improving. I have a trip booked for Guatemala in a few days and will heed your advice!
lee on April 24, 2010:
Interesting information..My husband has had 8 back surgeries and is fused fromT9-S1..He lives with chronic pain every day..needless to say we rarely travel anymore as it is just too much for him..after the fact that he can only fly about 4 hrs without literally dying in pain..the worst thing I think is the discomfort of hotel beds..Does anyone have any insight on how to handle that problem??? Any comments appreciated
AHI from Chula Vista, CA on February 15, 2010:
Thank you for providing such a wealth of medical travel tips for your readers with chronic back pain or sciatica. Your guidance and tips cover every situation from preparing for travel, to precautions during the trip, to what to do upon reaching their destination. From your own first-hand experience when traveling by air, it is vital that folks with back problems carry their medications on board so that it's not lost en route. You did a great service by being so thorough.
Back Relief Pain on January 07, 2010:
Hm, the long car journey tips will surely come in handy. Because I normally get a stiff back in less than an hour of driving, so breaks are a must for me.
Loribeth on November 19, 2009:
Hmmm...the one bit of advice I read that made me nervous: "Try not to go to sleep." I'm on an 8-hour overnight flight next week, so I have to try and sleep on the plane or else I'll be a zombie the next day. I don't know what's worse - to risk my back bothering me and be well-rested or a pain free zombie.
Tony McGregor from South Africa on October 06, 2009:
For someone who suffers from intemittent back pain this Hub is a very useful mine of information. Thanks for sharing.
Love and peace
Rob on July 17, 2009:
Back pain during long car trips is uncomfortable to say the least. Remember that flying also dehydrates the body, so drink water befor flying.
CatToy86 on March 29, 2009:
Thank you for this! I have a plane trip scheduled in May, and these tips and links are going to help me out a lot!
Tilly Holiday on February 23, 2009:
Back pain can turn a great hoiday into an absolutely torturous one, especially for those of us who suffer from ongoing back problems. Thanks for the tips!
Peter on December 21, 2008:
A lovely well thought out Hubpage loved the advice on it,I am always caereful when seated a long time on trips,because if I'm not my back will tell me and the pain is no fun.
fibromyalgia cure from Los Angeles on May 09, 2008:
Really helpful piecies of advice.