How to Avoid Back and Neck Pain During a Summer Road Trip

Health Professional

Memorial Day weekend marks the start of summer and the beginning of road trip season. Despite the rising gas prices, millions of fun-seekers will hit the pavement with luggage in the trunk and the navigation system set for some distant destination. As the miles add up, so too will the pain from sitting long hours in the car. At mile marker 100, the low back may start seizing-up. At mile marker 180, cramps might be felt in the legs and shoulders. And during the final mile, the whole body might feel as if the last semi-truck you passed actually ran over you. If that sounds familiar, take a moment to read about some survival tips that can help you avoid the pains of summer road trips.

Adjust the Seat: Seat adjustment is critical for avoiding pain on the road. The first thing to do when you buttocks hit the car seat is to adjust the seat to fit you. Starting from the top, the headrest should be centered squarely on the center of your head. Properly adjusted headrests do prevent whiplash injuries in the event of an accident. Next, adjust the backrest so that your spine can rest comfortably against it.

At this point, you may or may not have a lumbar support to adjust to your comfort level. A little extra lumbar support can relieve pressure from the sensitive spinal discs; however, too much lumber support can also irritate the sensitive spinal joints. Try to fit the existing back support just right for you. If your car seat does not have adequate support, try adding some additional support with a commercially available product that can also warm the back and provide a massage.

Many cars have an adjustable seat pan than can tilt forward or backward. My preference is backwards to get my knees a little higher than my hip joints. Others may prefer a forward tilt which can help preserve the natural lumbar curve. If your seat pan does not adjust, you can improvise with a folded towel that can be place under the thighs, mimicking a tilted backward position, or under the butt, mimicking a forward tilted position.

Finally, you need to adjust the seat distance from the dash board. If you are driving, I would advise you to place the seat as close to the steering wheel as possible. The closeness may feel a bit confining, but it will help to minimize the muscle fatigue from reaching for the wheel and pedals. Now, you are ready to roll.

Frequent Stops: Summer road trips should be at a leisurely pace that you can maintain in comfort. This pace will require frequent stops. Each stop provides an opportunity to rejuvenate, depressurize, and rebalance the body. Start your stop with a walk to increase circulation of the blood and oxygen to the tissues. Some stretches like making large circular motions with the arms or stretching the legs with bigger strides can help to loosen up the shoulders and hips which tend to get stiff on the road. Those who are practiced in Tai Chi or Qi Gong might want to go through some routines to rejuvenate. For others this time might be best spent unloading and depressurizing the spine. I like to travel with a zero-gravity folding chair that can be deployed and used at a rest stop. Others may have learned in physical therapy how to do some self-tractioning techniques like laying over a tailgate or hood of a car to depressurize lumbar discs. And finally, don't forget to drink plenty of water to keep all the tissue hydrated. By utilizing each stop as a personal care opportunity, pain can be minimized as much as possible.

Arrive at a Healing Destination: If all these miles end at a healing destination, you will have ample opportunities to recover from the long journey. Upon your arrival, try to arrange for a massage when you get there. If the place has a pool or whirlpool, some water therapy can help melt the tension away. At the very least, try taking a hot shower as soon as you get off the road. The sooner you can counterbalance the effects of a road trip, the quicker you will recover and be able to enjoy the rest of your summer vacation.