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10 Tips: How to Make Traveling with Back Pain Not So Bad

Published December 22, 2017    

It's the holiday season. You know what that means — vacation. So whether you're on winter break from school or finally using your paid time off from work, traveling with back pain can be the opposite of fun.

How can you schedule your itinerary around flare-ups you won't know will happen until after they do? How do you travel five hours via plane or train without dying of pain?

The answer, Backers, is right here. We spoke with Sarah Schlichter, senior editor of Smarter Travel, a vacation resource for expert travel tips and inspiring stories, to get the scoop on how to travel with a bad back.

Are you ready? Grab your stunna' shades and let's get to it.

1. Schedule Transportation Carefully

Whether you're flying, driving, taking the train, or walking always be mindful of how you'll be traveling. Will you be crammed in a small space for hours on end? Well... sitting for extended periods of time in an economy-class seat can make your spine feel like damaged guitar strings. Now don't cringe but it may be worth it to upgrade your seat to ensure you have leg room and enough space.

Are you the 'let's get it done right now' type? Many people opt for nonstop flights to reduce airtime. Doing so lessens the number of times you have to play the overhead bin game with your luggage.

If you're the type who needs breaks, others prefer to cut their trip into multiple shorter legs through layovers. Choosing this route may be more comfortable because it allows you to stretch and walk around the airport instead of sitting in one spot for multiple hours.

What approach will work for you? It all depends on the distance of your journey and your body’s limitations.

2. Pack Accordingly

Schlichter says to remember that every item you pack you'll have to lug that much more to and from the airport and hotel (most of the time, we don't really think about that when we're getting ready). If you are going away for an extended period of time and need to pack a lot, try using a few smaller bags. The best option is to use a light suitcase that has wheels in addition to a handle for rolling.

This also includes being conscious of what you choose to travel in. Stay comfy, Backers. No one wants to feel stiff or restricted in high heels or a suit. Go for extra large loose clothing whenever possible.

3. Accessorize

Just as you want to pack light, you also want to consider medical accessories that offer a more comfortable journey. Whether you choose lumbar pillows, seat cushions, heating pads, it's up to you.

To save space, think about travel-friendly alternatives of your desired accessories. For example, self-inflating lumbar pillow Therm-a-Rest measures less than half a pound and can be flattened out to fit in your luggage with little effort.

Schlichter says, "In a pinch, a rolled-up sweat-shirt or jacket can also support your neck or lower back."

4. Scout Out Your Accommodations

Do your research on the hotel's landscape as well as the general nearby area. Will you be walking a lot? Is there Uber, a taxi service, or hotel shuttles? Find all of this out beforehand. If you'll be doing the walking, consider a cane.

How far away is the airport from the hotel? Make sure you have your ride situation worked out in advance to limit the time you'll have to carry your luggage. Hire a car service, if possible. That way the driver will be responsible for picking up and loading your luggage.

Hotel concierge service.Caption: Does your hotel have a concierge? If so, your driver would pass off the torch to the hotel staff and once again you're off the hook for carrying heavy bags.

Do you have trouble walking? If so, make sure your hotel has elevators. Is it hard for you to sleep, especially in a new place? Consider calling ahead and asking for either a firm or soft mattress in addition to extra pillows. You'll want those extra pillows to place in between your knees for additional spinal support.

5. Support Your Feet

When you're packing, consider the activities you will be doing. Pack sneakers if you plan on touring the town.

Healthy support for the lower back also demands that same support from your feet. When your feet remain on an un-sturdy surface while sitting, additional pressure shifts to your lower back. So, if your seat is too tall, maneuver yourself in a way where your feet are guarded. Keep your knees at a right angle. If you're driving, rest both feet on the floor and consider using cruise control for long trips. Doing so provides extra relief for your lower back as opposed to one foot on the gas.

6. Get Up and Move

This means moving and stretching while en route to your destination and once you're there. Turn your hotel mornings into a nice stroll, maybe after a room service cup of joe? Don't forget to treat yourself. Wear that comfy white robe.

The experts say to move around every 20 to 30 minutes while traveling. Whether you have to walk to the airplane bathroom, do stretches near the cockpit, or make a bathroom stop on your road trip, don't rush.

If you're in the air, opt for an aisle seat. This way you don't have to bother anyone as you walk about and you have a little more leg room.

The spine was created for movement. Sitting in one state for extended intervals tightens your back muscles, which stress out the spine. Get up, stretch, and move often — every 20 to 30 minutes if feasible. You want to move your core body muscles.

At the beach despite having back pain.Caption: Movement initiates proper blood flow and blood delivers essential nutrients and oxygen to your back. If you want to prevent soft tissue from the lower back from becoming stiff and painful, you'll want to get moving. Plus, if you're visiting somewhere tropical, the beach is the perfect location for a nice stroll. 

As little as 10 seconds of action and stretching is more beneficial than sitting still. Moving about also prevents blood clots from developing in your leg, deep vein thrombosis, one of the most hazardous dangers of sitting for long periods of time.

7. Check Your Posture

Always maintain proper posture even when you're not on vacay or traveling.

Sitting for hours on end places tension on our lower back. In addition, poor posture adds more stress to the spine. Check yourself out in a mirror to see what your postural position looks like. Make sure that your back is parallel to the stern of your seat while in the sitting position. Make sure that your headrest is holding the middle of your head. Keep your shoulders straight and forget about hunching forward. If you are road tripping, modify your seat and steering wheel to a comfortable position that allows you to avoid reaching for the wheel.

Ironically most airplane seats encourage 'back rounding' as opposed to proper posture. As soon as approval is awarded, lean your seat back. Also, place a small travel pillow behind your shoulders and a second behind your lower back.

8. Quick and Simple Pain Relief

Do you take medication? Make sure to keep any pain meds handy. Although not strictly enforced, you may want to travel with your medications in their original prescription bottles. And, always carry more than you think you will need.

If you don't have access to a wall plug-in, consider ThermaCare HeatWraps instead of a standard heating pad. ThermaCare provides up to eight hours of warmth while concealed underneath your clothing. Are you more of an ice girl or guy? Think about bringing a zip-top plastic bag. Once at your hotel, you can borrow ice from their ice machine — it’s inexpensive, and adds zero pounds to your luggage.

Keep water nearby, stay hydrated, and think ahead. What complications could happen? Do you flare up during certain seasons? Be ready with what you need to feel good while traveling. You are on this journey to have fun, after all, so don't let your pain get in the way of that.

9. Use Your Resources

When you are scouting out your hotel, find out if there's a pool or fitness center on the grounds. If so, take a dip. Take advantage of the pool and all of its benefits. Water therapy is great for soothing pain and relaxation, all at the same time.

Maybe you prefer light exercise? Check out the gym and see if you can schedule an appointment with a personal trainer.

Are you ready to pause? Do you want to unwind and not think? See if you can get a massage while on vacay. You'll get to meditate on being zen while someone else works on your back. Tell them your problem areas and just enjoy the quiet (and maybe some cucumber water, perhaps?).

10. Manage Your Stress

Last but certainly not least is about you and your happiness. You booked this trip to get away and enjoy yourself. Don't let the stress of traveling get in the way of an epic trip.

Many people find that mental pain makes their back hurt that much worse. And, the truth is, most people’s travel stress originates at the airport. Schlichter says to be sure to arrive well before your first flight and allow plenty of time for any connections so you’re not racing to your gate.

"Once in flight, settle in with your favorite tunes or a lighthearted book or movie. Deep breathing, meditation, and positive visualization can help you manage both stress and pain," says Schlicter.

Finally, don’t over-schedule your itinerary. Build in some wiggle room to ensure you don’t feel rushed. Add in nap time right before dinner to ensure you and your back have time to breathe.

Lounging at the pool with back pain.

Backers, come one, come all. We invite you to book that trip, schedule that massage, tour a new town and live it up. Just because you have back pain doesn't mean you have to miss out on life's celebrations. It's the holiday season and that means happiness — together. So grab a loved one and venture out to a faraway land. Just don't forget these 10 tips to make traveling with a bad back not so bad.

Last change: January 29, 2019