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Mark Wang, M.D. - Desert Institute for Spine CareMark Wang, M.D. - Desert Institute for Spine Care

Tips for Flying With Back and Neck Pain

By Mark Wang, MD

Dr. Mark Wang is a fellowship-trained and board-certified orthopedic spine surgeon. He treats many spinal disorders in the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine, specializing in operative and non-operative spine care treatment options.

July 21, 2022

Despite its primary purpose to provide passengers with a place to relax during a flight, airplane seating does not offer much comfort. Sitting on a plane gives minimal support to the back and neck, resulting in travelers taking matters into their own hands by bringing pillows and blankets from home. You can take more precautions by preparing for your flight to fit your personal needs for comfort.

You should not have to limit your traveling opportunities because of your back and neck pain. You can still make lasting memories while traveling with the support of numerous tips, so discomfort while flying is more manageable. You can apply these tips before booking a plane ticket, during the flight, and after landing at your destination. Evaluate the following steps to alleviate the anxiety about traveling with back pain.

How to Alleviate Back and Neck Discomfort Before, During and After a Flight

Flying with a herniated disc or other neck and back pain symptoms can make each trip uncomfortable for hours on end. A decrease in air pressure, crowded cabins and little to no support for your back can make traveling long distances a troublesome journey.

Luckily, there are a few tips for flying with back and neck pain that you can try to make traveling easier on your body and mind. Simple changes such as investing in some neck support for flying and doing airplane stretches during the trip will allow a smooth transition from the land to the sky. Preparing exercises for long flights, recognizing the support your airline can provide for your condition and practicing destressing methods after a trip can make traveling easier on your neck and back.

Before the Flight

Before scheduling a flight, make an appointment with your doctor to inform them of your travel plans. They may be able to supply a letter of recommendation to the flight’s crew asking for special accommodations to support your condition. A doctor can suggest allowing extra pillows and blankets, opportunities to walk around or lie down during the flight or a change in seating to provide more comfort. 

Choosing an airline that can make special accommodations for medical conditions is a great first step to take before booking a flight. If you prefer to fly with a particular airline, try to find reviews written by others who experience back or neck pain and who have flown with them in the past. They may be able to provide some insight into the services the crew supplied before and during the flight to ease their discomfort. You can also contact the airline to ask if they make special accommodations before boarding. 

Airlines should be able to provide support for your condition, including:
  • Wheelchair access and early boarding
  • Assistance with luggage
  • Shuttle transportation 
  • Assistance through security lines

Once you have chosen an airline that can make your trip as comfortable as possible, schedule your flight well in advance. Flying in the middle of the week in the early morning or late in the evening often means fewer flight passengers, giving you more space in your cabin to stretch out.

Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the slowest days of the week for most airlines, so try to schedule your trip for these days at a time that works best for you. 

Pack the essentials, but pack lightly. Carrying heavy suitcases around the airport can increase back pain. Keep this in mind as you begin packing for your trip. Consider using bags without shoulder straps instead of duffle bags to minimize discomfort in the neck region. While packing, remember to have all of your medication stored securely for your trip. 

As you eventually make your way to the airport, avoid trips to the coffee shop. Caffeine can make it challenging to relax as it causes the muscles to tense and the lower back to tighten. 

During the Flight

Now that you have had time to prepare for the flight, there are several practices you can try out to make the trip as comfortable as possible. With the help of your doctor’s letter, the flight crew can complete small tasks such as placing your luggage in the overhead compartments and finding comfortable seating for you as you board the plane. 

During the flight, try to walk around the cabin at least once an hour. Airplane seats can be very compact and provide little support for you to sit comfortably for multiple hours. If you find yourself itching to move around during the flight, take a few laps from your seat to the bathrooms to give your back time to stretch. 

Exercises for long flights are popular among flight passengers. Stretching while sitting on a plane can provide immense relief during long flights. Engaging the muscles and meditating ease discomfort to make the trip as relaxing as possible. 

Effective airplane stretches that you do in your seat include:
Neck rolls

Relax the shoulders and bend the neck sideways so the ear touches the top of one shoulder. Roll the neck around ten times to reduce shoulder and neck tension. 

Shoulder rolls

Slouch the shoulders forward and rotate them clockwise from the front of the body, down to the floor, backward and up to the ears. 

Ankle rolls

Rotate the ankles one at a time in a clockwise and counterclockwise motion ten times each. 

Foot raises

With your heels flat on the floor, lift your toes into the air as high as they can go. Switch to heel raises with your toes on the floor and repeat ten times. 

Forward bend

While being cautious of the person in front of you, place your feet flat on the ground and lean forward as much as possible. Your chest should be touching the tops of your thighs. Lower your hands toward your feet to stretch the back and shoulders. 

Knee hugs

To ease the tension on your back from the sitting position, raise one knee at a time up to your chest and hold for about 15 seconds. 

Knee raises

Similar to the knee hug exercise, raise one knee at a time into the air to allow your thighs to move around. Do this ten times to ease the tension off of your feet. 

Cross-legged stretch

Try to avoid sitting with your legs crossed throughout the flight. However, the cross-legged stretch can help stretch the hips and lower back when you need to move. Sit with one ankle across the opposite knee for about 10 seconds and press down on the raised knee. Repeat on the opposite side. 

Sleeping during a flight can make it go by much quicker. However, sleeping on an airplane can cause the neck to bend at awkward angles in hopes of finding some form of comfort. The back can also stiffen to support the rest of the body during a nap. Investing in neck pillows for flying can ease the tension off your back and support the head’s weight. 

Neck pillows keep your neck upright and provide enough movement to gently rest your head against the sides for better sleep. This effective neck support tool for flying can help eliminate discomfort for the whole body while you rest. 

Hot and cold compresses can ease your body’s tension throughout the flight. As soon as you board the plane, apply a hot pack to your back and neck to relax the muscles and comfort the joints. After a few hours, reapply a cold pack to the same areas to reduce inflammation and stiffness. 

Prepare mentally engaging activities for the flight. Taking your mind off the trip can make it go by quicker and help alleviate discomfort. Whether you enjoy reading, puzzle books, entertaining apps or card games, having fun distractions throughout the flight benefits all passengers. Remember that slouching to look at your phone or a book can make neck and back pain more noticeable. Try keeping your neck pillow on at all times and maintain good posture throughout the flight to minimize this discomfort as much as possible. 

Remember to stay hydrated throughout the flight. Limiting caffeine intake and drinking lots of water can help the body rejuvenate after a long flight much quicker. Staying hydrated also eases the tension off of your joints and gives you the opportunity to walk around for a few bathroom breaks during the trip.

After the Flight

Passengers can typically feel a little disoriented after a long flight. Headaches and exhaustion are common symptoms that can last anywhere from a day to a week. When your body has been 35,000 feet in the air for a few hours, it can take a while to recuperate fully. Allow yourself some time to relax after your flight. Once your plane has landed, take a few minutes to walk around the airport so your body can adjust to its new standing position. 

Staying hydrated after the flight can keep your mind and body alert and relaxed. Try to stray from caffeine for at least a day after flying so your body can adjust to its new surroundings. Getting a good night’s rest may feel easier after a long flight, so make sure to find a comfortable place to sleep and take as much time as possible to reset your body.

Making the most of your flight by stretching, taking a power nap, or occupying your mind with engaging activities can significantly benefit your back and neck. Once the plane has landed, you can continue applying effective exercise techniques to straighten your spine and loosen up the rest of your body.

Easy yoga exercises to ease back and neck discomfort after a flight include:
Cat-cow stretch

While sitting in a chair, place both feet flat on the ground with your knees at a 90-degree angle. Place both hands on your knees and curve your back so your chest touches the top of your thighs. Then, bend your spine in the opposite direction with your stomach turning inward. This move stretches your spine and shoulders. 

Two-knee spiral twists

For this exercise, start by lying with your back flat on a yoga mat. Place both palms face down on the floor with your arms stretched in opposite directions away from the body. Press both knees together and bring them up into the air until your hips create a 90-degree angle with your knees. Maintain this position and keep both knees connected. Then, twist your hips to the left until your left knee touches the floor. Twist your hips the other way until your right knee almost touches the floor. This exercise engages your lower back and hips. 

Hand-clasp pose

This move requires a bit of flexibility. Take your left arm and reach over your left shoulder until your hand reaches your back’s upper or middle part. Your other arm should look the opposite. Reach your right hand around your middle or lower back. Try to clasp your hands together where they meet in the middle of your spine. Hold this pose for a few seconds before switching arms. This stretch is still effective if you can only reach your back’s lower or upper quadrant. 

Sphinx pose

While lying flat on your front on a yoga mat, place your hands on either side of your head with your palms facing down. Use your hands and elbows to lift your chest to face the space in front of you. Keep your hips on the floor and curve your back in a sphinx-like position.

Neck rolls

Similar to the airplane stretches you can practice during the flight, neck rolls are great for stretching out a sore neck after a flight. Since you have more room to move around, you can engage your shoulders in this exercise. Place your left arm over your head and gently rest your palm against the right side of your face. Tilt your head to the left until the ear touches its connected shoulder by using the weight of your arm. Hold this pose for about 10 seconds and do the same stretch on the other side. 

Warrior II pose

Start this exercise in a lunge position with one leg stretched straight out behind you and the other at a 90-degree angle with the floor in front of you. Both feet should be flat on the floor. Stretch both arms in a straight line on opposite sides of the body. Hold this position for 30 seconds before switching sides. This pose can help straighten the spine and align the shoulders. 

Cross body shoulder stretch

This simple pose is excellent for stretching the shoulders after a long flight. Start by crossing your left arm across your chest. Use your right arm to hold up the opposite arm. Hold this pose for 10 seconds before switching sides. 

Remember only to do exercises that your back and neck can handle. Overexerting these body parts can increase discomfort, so stretch beforehand and exercise safely. 

Trust DISC to Provide Quality Back and Neck Treatment

If you notice your back and neck pain persisting or becoming chronic over time, schedule an appointment with a doctor at DISC. At Desert Insitute For Spine Care, we prioritize minimally invasive spine surgery techniques to provide as much comfort as possible with equally effective improvement to your condition. 

Rest assured that our team of doctors can provide life-long comfort for conditions such as scoliosis, herniated discs, osteoporosis, whiplash and many other painful back conditions you may have. We take great care of your medical needs so you can get back to doing what you love most — including traveling. 

Contact us today to start on your road to recovery. 

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