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Best Cars to Buy for People with Bad Backs: The Ultimate Buyer's Guide

Published January 28, 2019
| Written By BackerNation Editorial Staff   | Medically Reviewed by Jerry Nichols, MD
Tags:  Pain Management

Finding the best car to buy can be a daunting experience. Adding car shopping with back pain in mind can further complicate the process. When you have a bad back, being comfortable in a car is not a luxury, it is a necessity. And according to ergonomic experts, many car seats are not ergonomically-correct.

“Back pain due to car seating can be different than back pain from sitting for long periods of time", said Darian Carrow, Consumer Wellness Investigator for Consumer Safety. “This occurs because of the vibrations that your body experiences while in the car. The vibrations of the car can shake your spine, resulting in the discs between the vertebrae, which are shock absorbers for your back, causing back pain.”

By following our comprehensive buyer's guide, we're confident you'll find the perfect car for you and your bad back no matter what type of vehicle you’re looking for.


Where to Begin

The most important feature for people with bad backs is a smooth ride along with lumbar support and an adjustable seat. The right seat, with good lumbar support and leg support, could even enhance comfort. Typically, larger cars give a smoother ride than smaller cars.

Be sure to choose a car with seat cushions that have the right balance between firmness and pliability. As with Goldilocks and the Three Bears, your seats cushions should not be too soft or too hard. Hard seats leave you arching your back, which creates back strain. If purchasing a pre-owned vehicle, consider older cars for their softer seats.

Luxurious car interior with supportive seats. “If your car is older or doesn’t offer good lumbar support you can always get a lumbar support cushion to do the job,” said David Shapiro, DC, Chief Wellness Officer at Complete Spine Solutions. “Seat position is very important. Seats that are partially reclined put a lot of stress on your neck to hold your head forward.”

Many modern cars have adjustable lumbar support as a standard feature and an array of optional equipment for a comfortable ride. The more comfort settings the system has, the better for your back. Pneumatic lumbar systems with four-way support (up, down, in, out) give adjustability for maximum comfort. The seat’s lumbar support goal is to maintain lumbar lordosis—the lower spine’s natural curvature. If the spine flexes too far forward, you risk putting more load on the discs, which leads to more back pain.

“The key to preventing back pain while driving is to have the body and spine aligned properly from head to toe. Our spines have a natural 'S-curve' shape to them, and so you want to keep that curve whenever you’re sitting and driving. Any deviation from our neutral alignment can cause back pain,” says Leon Turetsky, NASM-CES, NASM-CPT, a corrective exercise specialist and certified personal trainer (NASM-CPT) with Back Intelligence.

“One of the most common mistakes is to round the back into a “C-shaped” curve, where there is no low back arch at all. To fix this, use a lumbar support cushion at the low back area to help maintain the spine’s neutral curve.”

Seats with adjustments for cushion angle and length give good leg support to reduce transferred stress to the back. Seats that can be easily adjusted help lessen back strain on long drives. Aim to adjust the position once every 30 minutes.

“When people drive, often times their legs tend to be stretched out way in front of them. Instead, try to have your knees positioned at a 90-degree angle, or as close as possible to it. This will help you maintain proper posture through out your drive,” says Turetsky.

If your car is older or doesn’t offer good lumbar support you can always get a lumbar support cushion to do the job,” said David Shapiro, DC

Adjust the headrest, lumbar and cushion length to match the new position. Premium vehicles frequently have memory preset that allow you to create and save settings you can alter at the push of a button. Carrow recommends pushing your seat back to around 100 degrees, and moving the bottom of the seat 5 degrees upward. He also adds the following tips:

  • Some cars are equipped with lumbar support, and if this is true, adjust it until the seat touches your lower back
  • If your vehicle is not equipped with lumbar support, you can use a makeshift towel or sweatshirt rolled up. 
  • For more permanent support, you can purchase a lumbar support pillow from many stores

Cars featuring heated seats help since heat feels good on a pain-filled back. Some budget-friendly cars also offer this while higher end cars add massaging seats. The massage feature changes the pressure on the back to help with sitting endurance.

Fiat interior.Beyond seats, how you position yourself at the wheel also matters. Turetsky adds, “Holding the hands at the 2 and 10 (clock positions) will ensure that the shoulders stay down, and relaxed. If you hold your hands up too high you can put a lot of strain on the shoulders and neck, resulting in pain.”

One last precaution is driver awareness. All of the bells, whistles, and adjustments mean nothing if you're not correctly postured in the car while driving.

“A common mistake is for people to stick out their heads forward when driving (often times together with their shoulders rounding), sats Turetsky. Our heads are heavy so it will put a strain on the rest of the body and cause pain.”

He recommends a “neck retraction,” a practice of recognizing the shift in your posture and then “pulling your head back and aligning your ears with your shoulders.” He says that anytime you notice your head and shoulders slumping forward to retract back.

With the ergonomics out of the way, let's look at some of the best makes and models for your bad back.


Choosing the Right Car for Your Bad Back

When choosing the right car for back pain, variables such as comfortable car seats with lumbar support for those who drive a lot are important and helpful. “A firm car seat with the right curves can help relieve back pain,” says Darrin Zeer, best-selling author of Office Yoga and America’s Relaxation Expert for CNN.

Zeer says the 10 most comfortable car seats to support your back are all newer models of these cars:

  • Audi vehicles
  • Nissan Altima
  • Mercedes-Benz E-Class
  • Cadillac CT6
  • Kia Optima
  • BMW 7 Series
  • Lexus LS
  • Lincoln Continental

He warned that no matter how comfortable a car is, you still need to be mindful of back care as you travel. “During long drives it’s important to pull over at least every two hours and take a walk and stretch break. Move around, shake your body and stretch. This will help your back but also get you refocused and wake you up. As you stretch focus on breathing, slightly activating your core and belly muscles,” he said.


The Best SUVs for Bad Backs

Developed by orthopedic specialists, the Volvo XC60 has back coddling seats. While the varying seat positions of the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class give good back support.

More economical are the Buick Enclave, Chevrolet Traverse and GMC Acadia. Built on the same platform these vehicles have accommodating seats and amenable ride quality.


The Worst Vehicles for Bad Backs

While large vehicles are fashionable, especially if you have a family, Shapiro advises that you avoid vehicles that are high off of the ground, like large SUVs and some pickup trucks, if you have chronic back pain.

Avoid Jeeps due to their high ride height.“Look for cars that are not too high - like tall pick up’s that require you to climb in and out of. When your back is flared up, it can be difficult to get in and out of a vehicle that is too high. This can cause stress on your back,” he said.


Back pain sufferers should not plan zipping around in a sports car. The close-fitting bucket seats keep drivers in place during twists and turns when for back pain sufferers, being able to move within the seat is key. The deep seats also make pain worse because you crunch your back in these seats, irritating a bad back. Sport cars’ generous side bolstering can be intrusively uncomfortable for a bad back.

“A car that is too low or too small can be really tough to squeeze in and out of. A lot of small cars like Mini’s or low cars like sports cars (Corvette) that have a really low profile can cause you to bend and twist to get in and out of,” said Shapiro.


Conclusion

When eyeing your new ride, keeping back pain at bay means look for less bounce and more seat adjustment options and seat features. And if you drive professionally, or take the occasional long trip, you'll want to hit those rest stops or small, off-the-highway towns along the way to your destination.

“As for staying comfortable on long trips, experts recommend stopping to stretch your legs every 20-30 minutes. Not only can this help with back and leg pain, but it can also prevent blood clots,” said Carrow.

While it may cost a little more to get a car with the proper features to protect your back and provide you a comfortable commute, you'll find that every feature you can afford to include will be worth the added expense.

Updated: September 12, 2019

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Contributors and Experts

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Dr. David Shapiro is the chief wellness officer at Complete Spine Solutions, a pair of chiropractic and wellness centers in the Greater Atlanta, Georgia area.
Regarded as America’s Relaxation Expert by CNN, Darrin Zeer is a professional speaker, best-selling author, spokesperson, stress management expert and yoga instructor.
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