9 Exercises For Back Pain Relief While Travelling
Recommendations From A Physical Therapist
Do you experience back pain when you travel? Does back and hip stiffness put a damper on your enjoyment of summer trips? If you are wondering how you can forgo the aches and pains and find back pain relief while travelling in cars or airports, then you are in the right place.
Summer is a time for a lot of travel, but it also requires a lot of sitting. Sitting is often an aggravating factor for people with AND without back pain. Some people find themselves strapped into a chair for nearly an entire day! No wonder your back is screaming at you by the end of your travels.
You are not the only one….
I was talking with a couple of the participants in the Back To Freedom program I offer for online coaching for people who want to resolve their back pain naturally. Both of them had trips coming up that included more than 5 hours on the road.
They were dreading the trip because they knew that they would be sore and stiff for days after their car ride. They both had suffered from persistent low back pain, and had made marked improvement in the program, but were now anxious that they would have a “setback” because of the travel.
I talked with both of them about options they had in the car to lessen their pain and keep the stiffness at bay, which I will also share with you. There isn’t one “magic” exercise that will fix all the problems on the road (though I really like this one for acute low back pain), but frequent movement is the KEY to keeping your back happy.
There is nothing wrong with sitting, but we do too much of it in the U.S. So for the person who struggles with the ups and downs of back pain, sitting can definitely set it off.
The good news is that there are movement solutions for back pain relief while travelling! Read on if you want to find out some strategies for car and air travel.
Now Let’s Get Moving!!
There are ways to combat what I like to call “spinal exhaustion” when you travel.
If you are slightly anxious about your travel plans because you know what is coming in regards to lower back stiffness and pain, these exercises can give you the relief you are looking for!
As a physical therapist, I use movement as medicine! It’s powerful, and all bodies need movement as often as possible. I have helped many people travel without back pain.
I shared these same exercises on Instagram reels, and one follower said “I just completed my 10 hour drive yesterday and I did these exercises while in the car and stopping for breaks and they worked! No discomfort or stiffness. Once home I was able to sleep well too because I wasn’t uncomfortable. Thank you so much!”
A 1o hour drive is a LONG drive, and because she was consistent and moved often, her body didn’t fight back.
You don’t have to do all of these exercises to find relief. Pick your favorites and do them as often as possible.
Seated Pelvic Tilts
These are simple, but they are effective.
Start by sitting slightly more forward in your chair if you can do so safely.
Sit up tall, and then arch your back, like you are sticking your belly out and forward. You may notice this is stiff and brings about a little pain. Don’t worry–doing some more repetitions should alleviate that. (If not, just go within a pain-free range)
Notice that in this position, you are sitting more on your bony prominences of the pelvis–or the “sits” bones.
Next, tilt your pelvis backward like you are tucking your tailbone underneath, pulling your belly button inward.
Notice here that you are sitting more or less on your tailbone.
Then repeat this back and forth 10-20 repetitions.
Seated Cat/Cow With Shoulder Extension
This one is similar to pelvic tilts, but you add onto it with the addition of the thoracic spine (aka upper back).
Do the same pelvic tilt forward with the belly out, then continue to let that arch your back from the base of the spine up to the chest and neck area. Push into the back of the seat with your elbows to accentuate the forward chest.
Next, start by tilting the pelvis backward, rocking back onto the tailbone and rounding the spine from the base of it up to the chest. I like to clasp my hands, then press my shoulder blades away from each other, rounding the upper chest.
Then repeat this back and forth 10-20 repetitions.
Seated Spinal Twist
Sitting tall, take one hand and place it on your opposite knee or thigh. Use your other hand on the seat behind you. Use your arms to pull you into a twist–that is mainly happening at the upper/mid back.
Hold for 3-5 seconds.
Repeat towards the other side.
Seated Glute Squeezes
This one is a pretty simple one. In the photo my back is arched, but I would prefer you try in it in a more neutral spine (somewhere between rounded and arched).
Just squeeze your glutes/cheeks together and hold for 3 seconds.
Repeat 20 times.
Seated Knee Extensions
Obviously, you can’t do this one when you are driving. It is free game for those in the airplane and drivers seat.
Straighten your knee as much as you can, contracting your quadriceps muscle.
Hold for 3-5 seconds, repeat 20 times.
Seated Ankle Pumps
Again, you can’t do this driving–but ankle pumps are a go-t0 if you have been sitting a long time. Doing ankle pumps can get the blood flow going and can even help with preventing blood clots while flying.
Do these in bouts of 20 reps, or more!
Seated Spinal Traction
This one is a personal favorite, and I used it a lot when I was in PT school and sitting on my butt all day studying.
Place your hands on the chair, drop your pelvis forward off of the chair while leaning backward. Let your pelvis hang heavy off the chair, which feels like it’s decompressing the spine. Technically it probably isn’t, but it does feel really good.
Hold for as long as you like or as long as your arms can hold.
Seated Knee-To-Chest with Thoracic Extension
Sitting more forward in the chair, pull one knee in towards your chest. Give it a “hug” and sit up tall, arching your back.
Hold for 3-5 seconds, and switch sides.
Unloaded Pelvic Swings
This one is easier if you are in a an airplane with the hand rests.
Option 1 (picture is not shown): place the seat belt that is buckled over your hip crease or at the top of your thighs. Tighten the belt as much as you can.
With your hands on the had rests, push up and let the buckle provide a counterforce downward. Hold as long as you like.
Option 2 (pictures above): push up using the hand rests, unweighting the pelvis. Then tilt one side side of the pelvis up, letting the other side drop. Then switch sides.
It’s kind of like a teeter totter.
Repeat 10 times.
I hope that this is helpful. If you are curious about working with me in person or virtually to resolve your back or neck pain, please check out my website here.