8 Tips On How To Avoid Back Pain When Traveling

Traveling with back pain

If 80% of the American population experience back pain at some point in their life, how many do you think are traveling with back pain? Americans travel a lot each year. Nearly 45% of all Americans step on to planes each year to prepare for either business, pleasure, or non-leisure travel. That breaks out to roughly 8 million Americans everyday traveling somewhere. And this number is only increasing year over year. Check out these travel stats.

Traveling with back painTraveling With Back Pain

Some people experience back pain due to traveling, while others experience back pain after flight. Some flyers travel after experiencing back pain and then need to have some kind of back support for those airplane seats. So, let’s elaborate on just a few reasons why traveling with back pain is a challenge.

Carrying your baggage

Carrying a big, heavy suitcase is not the best way to travel, yet so many people make it happens on a daily basis. Now with airlines charging fees for baggage, and it can get pricey to check those bags, so many are opting to carry-on instead. This means you have to carry it around everywhere you go… to the bathroom, from the curb to the gate, and through the airport. If you have a layover, repeat this cycle getting off and then back on to your next flight. Roller wheeled bags have been a lot of help, but some are still pretty awkward to carry around.

And let’s face it, with everyone else doing the same thing, you are battling for space in the overhead compartments. Putting a loaded roller bag, which can weigh between 25-50 pounds, in a narrowed walkway, overhead, can get a bit tricky. If you are not strong enough, it can put unnecessary stresses on your low back. All of these things can add up to a really upset lower back and can happen even before you get into the air. So, you can always ask for help by a flying companion or flight steward.

Seats On Airplanes

Airplane seats are uncomfortable! This is not good for anyone traveling with back pain.  Why?  They are narrow and do not provide a lot of low back support. That is why so many people complain of low back pain after airplane travel. Most people are not offered the opportunity to stretch out regularly when in the air because of space limitations. Additionally, for safety reasons, you are not allowed to move about the cabin at certain times of the flight. If you are already experiencing back pain, sitting is often the worst position to be in. So, this makes the experience of pain much worse.

To help combat this, ask the flight attendant for pillow or blanket. Some airlines don’t have these any longer, so improvising with a jacket or sweater can also work. Place this object in the small of your low back and then gently lean back into the seat. This will help to support your low back a bit more than those seats already allow for.

Sitting Is The New Smoking

If you are flying international or transcontinental, these flights can be inevitably long and traveling with back pain harder to control. Sitting is the new smoking and the situation is worsened when you are stashed in like sardines. Back pain is often experienced when you have been sitting for a prolonged period of time. Sitting still also makes your body feel stiffness and movement helps to lubricate your muscles and joints. Check out this article that discusses how sitting can be taking time away from your life (Click Here To Read).  If you travel and sit a bunch for work, then making sure you are reducing this with movement is the absolute key.

  1. Here are a few tips to help you with sitting while flying.
    Get up every hour and walk to the front or back of the plane. Even if it is for only a minute or two, it’s better than sitting the entire time. Plus, it promotes movement and you reduce your risk of blood clots in your legs because you are moving around.
  2. Mentioned already… Use a small supportive object to place into the small of your back. This will help, when you are sitting, to provide support, thus removing pressure from your back. You may have to play with the size of the support. Some people need a bit more and others a bit less. Find out what works best for you.
  3. Drink plenty of water. Bring an empty water bottle (so you can get it through security) and then fill it up prior to your flight. This will give your body one of the vital element in needs to heal itself and keep your fluidity.
  4. The seatbelt should be low on the hip bones. This will help to remove pressure from your back instead of it being over your belly area.
  5. Stretch in the seat or in the back of the plane. This can always be tricky on the plane because it is often crowded. If there is room, take advantage and your back will thank you later for it.

The Unfamiliar Bed

When you travel, hotel stays are a common place. Some hotels have great beds and others should be replaced. A way to make any bed work when you have back pain is to sleep either on your back or side.  If you chose to sleep on your side, be sure to use a pillow between your knees and then hug another pillow (might as well use all the pillows that are there). If you sleep on your back, the place a pillow under your knees to soften the pressure to your low back. These pillow tricks are extremely helpful and will allow you to sleep better on that unfamiliar bed.

Traveling with back pain always make sleeping a challenge.  But using the multiple pillows on the hotel bed can provide some relief to get you to enjoy travel.  So, rearrange those pillows to work in your favor.

Trying A New Activity

When you go on vacation, sometimes we try new activities. We have had people tell us about how they went hiking, skydiving, zip-lining, or even cliff diving… Some people have even hurt their lower back with these types of activities. It’s not that these activities are all bad, but if you are not conditioned to participate, your risk skyrockets. So, if you plan to do something new, be sure you prepare your body for that type of event. You will enjoy it more if you are prepared and enjoying the rest of your vacation without back pain is usually most preferred.

Do You Really Relax?

Have you ever heard the saying “I need a vacation from my vacation”? Some people jam pack their vacations with so many activities they do not give themselves any time to relax.

One tip to make sure you get some relaxation time in there is to do alternating days for your activities. Your first day is always a travel day, so you should not plan anything big. Then do a half day activity on day two. This still give you some time for rest and relaxation. With day three, make it a fully relaxing day at the beach or by the pool or doing some light walking and sightseeing. Maybe even go find a spa and treat your back to a nice massage. Then repeat this for the remaining times of your travel.

By implementing this type of strategy, you will be able to relax and come back to life charged and refreshed. And if you have back pain while traveling, this same strategy can also work for you. Perhaps even getting in a small workout or a walk around the local area to get a cup of coffee to start off your day. It will make the effort totally worth it.


Traveling can be a great experience but traveling with back pain is never fun for anyone. By utilizing some of tips we have described above, you can provide support for those airplane seats to keep back pain away or at ease. Be careful with moving your luggage around as you travel to your destination. Don’t forget to spend some time relaxing, which will help you decrease your stress. And you back will thank you for it.

If you would like more information about low back pain and some of the other strategies we provide our clients, then grab our FREE tips report. It will give you some specific information about back pain that can start you in the right direction. You can also call us at 760-503-4440. Hope you enjoy your travels!

Chris Ingstad, PT, DPT, OCS, MTC, ATC, FAAOMPT

Performance Physical Therapist at Level4 Physio-Wellness-Performance
Dr. Chris Ingstad is a nationally-known Physical Therapist and Co-Founder of Level4 Physio-Wellness-Performance, San Diego’s Leading Specialist Private Physical Therapy and Human Performance Practice for People in their 40’s, 50’s and beyond, who value their health and want to remain active.

You might know Dr. Chris as a National Conference presenter on various rehabilitation topics, including on treating people with shoulder, neck and low back injuries. He also teaches at the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences in the Musculoskeletal track, where he brings clinical practice into the classroom for future physical therapists. He also is published in Jiu Jitsu Magazine and Coastal Newspaper on various areas, including low back and neck and shoulder injuries.

Dr. Chris’ background included working extensively with athletes with shoulder, knee and low back injuries, taking them from post-injury or post-operative to return to sport. He prides himself on the ability to get positive outcomes, even with difficult cases. Level4 Physio-Wellness-Performance is now a large multi-physical therapist specialty practice in Encinitas, CA. In his free time, he enjoys cycling, golfing, hiking/camping, and training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
Chris Ingstad, PT, DPT, OCS, MTC, ATC, FAAOMPT

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