One of the best parts of summer is road trips. Whether it’s a solo jaunt across the state or an epic family adventure, here are 16 ways to prevent or manage back pain during those long hours in the car.

1. Maintain your good humor during road trips

You know that sitting for long periods of time can cause stiffness, so simply accepting that you might have a few twinges of discomfort here and there and working with it goes a long way. Attitude is everything when it comes to managing pain.

2. Stretch

When you take a break, don’t walk to the welcome center and sit down. The best way to work with back pain is to keep your muscles and joints flexible and moving. A few simple stretches can even be performed while you are at a stoplight.

3. Make frequent stops

Before you pull out of the driveway, plan the timing of your stops. Maybe you need a five-minute break once an hour, or fifteen minutes every two hours. Incorporate these planned breaks into planning your road trip route.

4. Make the stops adventurous

Although rest areas with bathrooms are often necessary, are there other places along your route that may offer more entertaining and interesting scenery? Perhaps there is a lookout or a found art sculpture (giant string ball, anyone?) that will make the stops seem more like part of the trip and less like an inconvenient detour.

5. Hydrate

Dehydration can increase pain, so keep plenty of water handy. Unsweetened green tea has antioxidant properties that can help with inflammation, so alternating with water and green tea can provide a double benefit.

6. Adjust your seat

Make sure that you are close enough to the steering wheel that you don’t have to hunch your shoulders forward to reach the wheel but not so close that your arms are hugged uncomfortably to your body. The seat itself may tilt forward and back. Tilting forward helps preserve the curve in your lumbar spine, and tilting back lifts your knees above your hips which can relieve low back pain.

7. Adjust your mirrors

You should be able to look into your mirrors (side and rear view) with a level chin. Spending a road trip with your chin tilted up to look in the mirror can result in cervical neck pain.

8. Utilize over-the-counter (OTC) medicines if you need them

If you are driving, prescription pain medicines may not be a good idea, as they can make you drowsy, but OTC anti-inflammatories may help make you more comfortable. Ask your doctor about the best OTC medicines for your trip.

9. Eat to control inflammation

Road trips snacks can be terrible not just for your waistline but also for any back pain that may be caused by inflammation. Stick with snacks you pack yourself, focusing on anti-inflammatory foods like cherries, watermelon, almonds, smoked salmon, fresh veggies, and spicy mixed nuts.

10. Buy some accessories to reduce back pain

A lumbar pillow for your back is a great road trip accessory and can help maintain the natural curve of your back over several hours. Some people swear by memory foam seat pads, too. Ask your doctor for suggestions.

11. Work out while you’re a passenger

If you find yourself in the passenger seat, take the opportunity to do some small activities that can have a big impact. Pelvic tilts can help work your core (which supports your back) and shoulder rolls can remove tension and pain in your shoulders and upper back. Small twists can help keep your spine flexible and mobile. To do these, sit up straight, inhale, then on the exhale, place your left hand on your right knee and twist from your core to the right. Hold for a few breaths, then switch to the other side.

12. Plan to end the day at a healing stop

If you can, end the day at a hot spring, a hotel with massage, or a house with a hot tub. Knowing that tired muscles will have a soothing massage or warm bath can make the road trip easier.

13. Go easy

If chronic back pain is part of your life, you may not be able to put in ten-hour road trips like you did when you were a kid in the backseat of the family car. This gives you an opportunity to explore places more slowly and more deeply. Think of it this way: instead of the scenery whizzing by like it’s on a loop, stop when you see something interesting and really take a look. Maybe it’s time to shop the world’s longest yard sale or actually visit the buried Cadillacs instead of watching them fly by. Make the journey more important than the destination.

14. Ask for what you need

It can be hard to ask for a break during road trips, especially if time is limited and you are traveling with other people, but don’t suffer in silence. What starts as a small twinge of discomfort can bloom into a longer trip delay as you recover. Don’t wait for that to happen. Better to stop for an early lunch and a little walk than to push through pain and end up losing a whole day, flat on your back.

15. Just say ‘om’

Mindfulness meditation is gaining traction (see what we did there?) as a way to help manage chronic pain. If you are in the passenger seat, take a moment to close your eyes and focus on your breath. If thoughts about pain arise, acknowledge that they are there, and then let them go, returning to the breath. You can try to relax and release tight muscles by sending breath into them, consciously relaxing as you exhale. This simple practice can also help with anxiety and depression related to pain.

16. Do simple back exercises twice a day

The Mayo Clinic has a simple 15-minute routine that can be done in the morning before you hop in the car and then at the end of the day before bed. This easy routine helps stretch and strengthen the muscles in the back, hips, and core, offering more support to the spine while seated during the drive.

What are your favorite ways to manage back pain during your summer road trips?

Image by patrickcam via Flickr


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