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Nima Salari, M.D., FAAOS - Desert Institute for Spine CareNima Salari, M.D., FAAOS - Desert Institute for Spine Care

Back Pain Relief Tips for Long Road Trips

By Nima Salari, MD

Dr. Salari is a Board Certified, Fellowship Trained Orthopedic Spine Surgeon with specialized training in the operative and non-operative treatment of pathologic conditions affecting the spine.

July 15, 2022
You may be planning a road trip as a fun excursion, envisioning the freedom of driving off into the sunset. Or, the trip may be a necessity to get from point A to point B. Either way, it’s important to prioritize back pain relief as you journey to your destination. In this article, you’ll find several tips for reducing lower back pain when sitting in a car.

Before You Hit the Road

The drive is one of the most important things to plan for from a back pain relief perspective. Since you’ll be sitting for an extended period, you’ll want to take care of your back on the long drive. Here are some back pain relief tips when you’re in the planning stage of your road trip. 

1. Purchase Helpful Accessories

If you have some room in your trip budget, it may be worthwhile to invest in accessories that support your spine as you travel. Here are some accessories you may consider purchasing:

  • Memory foam pad
  • Air-filled seat cushions
  • Ergonomic backrest
  • Neck pillow

2. Bring a Sweatshirt for Back Support

If you’d rather try a DIY option for providing back support as you drive or sit in the passenger seat, roll up a sweatshirt or bath towel and place it in the small of your back for lumbar support. 

3. Bring a Cold Pack and Heating Pad

Alternating hot and cold therapy during your trip can bring back pain relief. Bring some reusable ice or cold therapy packs in your cooler with your drinks and snacks. Likewise, a heating pad that can plug into your car’s power source may be a worthwhile investment. If your vehicle has heated seats, they may provide all the heat you need for back pain relief!

Cold therapy has been used as a pain relief method for centuries. Its benefits involve short-term pain relief rather than long-term solutions. The way cold therapy relieves pain is not entirely clear, but research shows that it reduces inflammation and may slow the transmission of pain signals from nerve fibers. 

Heat therapy has been shown to relieve chronic back pain by increasing blood flow to damaged tissue. The increased blood flow enhances muscle flexibility and helps prevent muscle spasms. 

4. Adjust Your Seat

Consider finding a comfortable angle for your seat on long road trip drives. Most experts say that angling your seat at 100 degrees is ideal

If you find that angle uncomfortable, test out the most comfortable angle before leaving on your trip. Ideally, your hips should be in line with your knees, and your spine should be in a neutral position. Consider using cruise control for most of your trip to maintain optimal posture. 

5. Use the Buddy System

Try to travel with at least one other person while going on long road trips. You can switch driving roles with each other as needed to avoid staying in the same position for too long, which increases back pain risks. If you take turns with driving responsibilities with your travel partner, it can be easier to avoid staying in the same position for too long. 

During the Car Ride

You’re on your way. You’ve spent months, weeks or days planning, and now you’ve put rubber to the blacktop. There is still much you can do during your drive to reduce back pain. Here are some suggestions for reducing back pain in the car. 

1. Make Rest Stops

To avoid sitting in the same position for too long, you can also schedule rest stops. Plan these stops before your trip so you can still reach your destination on time. Getting out of the car and moving can prevent back stiffness, achiness and muscle spasms. Aim to take a 15-minute break from driving every one to two hours or so, increasing the frequency of your stops if you’re more prone to back pain. 

2. Distract Yourself

When you’re in pain, it’s easy to focus on the pain and nothing else, especially if your pain is severe. Still, studies have shown that selective attention — or distractions — can be an important part of minimizing pain perceptions. So, if you’re driving, you can distract yourself by:

  • Listening to new music
  • Downloading a podcast
  • Listening to an audiobook

If you’re driving with others, you can also play road trip games, like spotting license plates from different states, to keep you all distracted from potential back pain. Just be sure you or whoever’s driving can focus their attention on the road as you play.

If you’re a passenger, you have more options for distracting yourself, such as:

  • Reading a book
  • Doing a crossword puzzle
  • Watching a show
  • Playing a game on your phone or handheld device

As a passenger, you can also try some car exercises to help with back pain and distract you, like rolling your shoulders back or stretching one arm across the opposite side of your body.

3. Avoid Tech Neck 

Tech neck is a term for the neck pain you experience when looking down at your phone for extended periods. This tip applies to passengers, as drivers should always keep their eyes straight ahead on the road. So, if you’re playing a game on your phone or watching a show, take steps to avoid tech neck. This may include using a mount for your phone or holding it up to eye level while you’re using it. 

4. Remove Items From Your Pockets

Sitting on any items in your back pockets during the drive, such as your wallet or phone, could throw your spine out of alignment, causing or worsening existing back pain. When you sit on your wallet or phone, half of your upper body is higher than the other half. Ensure you remove such items from your pockets before sitting down for the long drive. 

After the Car Ride

You made it! Still, whether your back feels fine or you’ve been traveling with back pain, the journey is not over for reducing back pain. Here are a few things you can do to relieve lower back pain after driving on a long road trip. 

1. Don’t Sit

Sitting in a comfy recliner after a long car ride may be tempting, but the best thing you can do for your body is to move around. Give your body the activity it didn’t have during the ride. This activity may involve a short walk, simple stretching exercises, jumping jacks or throwing a ball to get the blood flowing again. 

2. Do Some Simple Core Exercises

Research shows that core stabilizing and strengthening exercises can reduce lower back pain. One helpful exercise is the elbow plank. With this exercise, you’ll start lying on your stomach with your elbows at a 90-degree angle. 

Keeping your body in a straight line, rest your forearms on the floor and slowly push up your body with your forearms, engaging your core. Hold this position — called a plank — for 30 seconds. Then, release and repeat three times. The plank is one of the best exercises you can do for your core strength and stability. 

If the Pain Doesn’t Go Away

Some back pain is expected after a long road trip. However, if your pain refuses to subside, it may be time to see a doctor. Our spine specialists at the Desert Institute for Spine Care would happily see you for a consultation. We encourage you to schedule a consultation with one of our spine specialists at DISC if your back pain doesn’t go away. 

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