Managing your back pain while flying

Flying can be strenuous on the lower back because of the long hours sitting in a cramped space and in a seat which is not very supportive for your lower back. Here are a few tips and exercises to get you through your flight.

Airport

You could ask your doctor or physio for a medical letter which will inform the airport staff and flight crew of your condition and help them to accommodate you better. They could provide you with a wheelchair at the airport if needed, help carry heavy luggage and allow you more freedom to move around in the plane. Sometimes they may even upgrade your flight if you are lucky.

Seating

Try to get a seat at an exit or at the very front of the isle where there is more leg room. Aisle seats are ideal because you will be less disruptive when you need to get up. Usually supporting the lower back when sitting will ease some of the tension therefore ask the flight attendant for an extra pillow or blanket you can roll up and place in the small of your back. Try and raise your legs so that your knees are at a 90° angle with your hips, a large book underneath the feet might help or another pillow or blanket. The recline is there to adjust as you need, your back might feel better in an upright position or all the way backward, or you might prefer changing between theses angles during the flight.

Medication

Speak to your doctor before the flight for appropriate pain killer or muscle relaxants that may help you through the flight and take these 1 hour before the flight. Otherwise over the counter analgesia may be helpful if you have found they have eased your pain before. Alternatively, applying heat or ice can help ease the pain. Heat may help the tight muscles in the beginning and ice may ease the tender area after a few hours of flying. Bringing a gel ice pack and asking the attendant to place it in the fridge for you or a hot water bottle they can fill up for you is a good idea.

Move and stretch

Try and get out of the seat and to go for a walk every 40 minutes. Find an area at the back of the plane or by the restrooms to do a few stretches. Some people even need to lie flat on the floor to ease their pain, this is where it will be helpful if the flight crew is aware of your condition.
Here are a few stretches to try

Wall roll down

Stand with your back against a wall and your feet a step or two steps away from the wall. Grow nice and tall and then tuck your chin in and start rolling your spine away from the wall one vertebra at a time. At the end, you should be doubled over with your arms and head hanging towards the floor. Slowly roll back up one vertebra at a time.

Quads stretch

Stand bracing yourself with one hand on the wall, with the other hand, bend your knee and grab your angle from behind bringing the foot towards the buttocks. You may need a blanket/belt/tie to loop around the foot if you cannot reach. Keep your back straight and try to “open up” the hip as you bend the knee and extend the hip.

Gluts stretch

In standing, pull one leg up towards your chest and hold.

Calf stretches

Place your hands against the wall and take a big step with the feet so that the one leg is in the front and the other behind. Keep the toes facing forward and the heels down. Bend the front knee and keep the back knee straight to feel a stretch in your calf on the back leg.

Pecs stretches

Find a corner or a doorway and place your hands against the walls on either side with your elbows at shoulder height and bent ant 90°. Gently lean forward to feel a stretch at the front of your shoulders.
Each stretch you can hold for 30 seconds and repeat twice each side

Ankle movements

To help prevent deep venous thrombosis point and flex your feet regularly during the flight in addition to getting up and moving around

Prevention

If you know in advance that you are going on a long flight, prepare your body by strengthening your core and back muscles beforehand. Perhaps sign up for a course of Pilates or physiotherapy to help you along the way so that your trip does not get dampened by an achy back.

Bon voyage!