Going The Distance

Don’t let hitting the road hurt your back

Family trips are coming back this summer, and many people are anxious to go as far as they can. Some plan to forgo the crowds and hassles of flying and instead will hit the road with their clan. But a long drive can turn into a long night of pain if you don’t consider your body’s needs, especially the spine. Physical therapist and Executive Director of Rehabilitation Services Angela Thomas has some advice to keep you headed in the right direction.

Health tips for road trips:

  • Sit right. First, empty your back pockets before you sit down. Small discomforts can grow into sharper pain later. Then try to remember to sit up straight with knees slightly higher than your hips as you drive.
  • Not too close, not too far. Having to reach too far for the wheel places stress not just on your spine but also your shoulders, neck and wrists. But standard airbags have also made sitting too close to the wheel potentially dangerous as well. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration advises sitting with your breastbone at least 10 inches from the steering wheel, with your hands at 9 and 3 o’clock.
  • Stop and stretch/bend. There’s no way to avoid stiff muscles when driving a long distance. This can lead to spasms or aches. If possible, take a 15-minute break for every two hours of driving. Take breaks even more frequently if you have had back problems before. Since sitting is a bent-forward position, gently bending backwards is particularly helpful.  A repetition of 10 non-painful backbends is recommended if you are able.
  • Plant your feet. Whether you’re a driver on cruise control or a passenger, having your feet placed on a firm surface at the right height can actually help keep the stress off of your lower back. Ideally, your seat position should allow you to keep your knees at a right angle. Occasional ankle circles can help prevent calf swelling and tightness. (This works on plane trips, too.)
  • Stay aligned. Some drivers may benefit from a small pillow or a rolled-up blanket or scarf between their lower back and their seat. This can help support the contour of the lower back and keep you aligned with the back of your seat.

    Of course, having unhappy passengers is a different kind of pain in the neck, so make sure you have snacks, games, and other diversions before setting out.

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