Driving is becoming a major cause for back complaints in South Africa as more people are forced to spend an increasing amount of time behind the wheel. They rarely pay any attention to the fact that how they sit and how they drive could have serious implications for their spinal health.
It is estimated that 60% of people complain about back problems after going on a long car journey, according to the South African Society of Physiotherapy (SASP).
“The number of back complaints that can be linked to driving has highlighted the need to educate drivers and passengers as to how they can minimise back pain and discomfort by following some basic advice. Drivers can reduce the risk of back injury by adjusting the way they sit, how they place their arms and legs and how often they exercise and stretch,” says Linda Hunter, physiotherapist at the University of the Witwatersrand.
Place hands in the right position
Placing the hands on the steering wheel in the ten-to-two position is the best for the spine. The driver’s seat should be at the right distance to ensure that the elbows are just slightly bent and the arms are not forced into a straight-out position, or have to be bent at a sharp angle.
Drivers should also make sure that their hands are lower than shoulder height. Steering wheels should not be too small as these require greater force when turning which could lead to muscle strain.
Incorrect sitting, however, remains one of the major causes of back problems in the car as Hunter explains: “Many back problems experienced while driving or as a passenger could be alleviated simply by sitting correctly. Drivers and passengers should take time to adjust their position in the car to make sure that their spines are properly positioned and supported. Too many people just jump into the car and stay in whatever position they land in.”
"Finding a comfortable, supported position is especially important for the driver. The driver’s seat should be in such a position that the pedals, gear lever, indicators and any other controls are within easy reach.
"Adjusting the backrest so that it's at an angle of more than 90 degrees – usually around 110 degrees – and tilting the seat pan back will take some pressure off the spinal discs. The lower part of the back should also have some type of lumbar support so that the natural curve of the spine is retained and there is less tendency to slouch," says Hunter.
The driver's seat
The driver's seat should be on the low side, making pedal control easier and allowing the knees to be just slightly bent, not forced into a right angle. The heel should rest on the floor while the pedals are operated.
Apart from getting the seat into the correct position and sitting properly, drivers and passengers could also do a lot to make themselves more comfortable by doing some simple, gentle exercises in the car.
Hunter explains what can be done: "Turning the neck from side to side while waiting at a traffic light, for example, will help loosen tension as will shrugging the shoulders backwards and downwards.”
As important as correct sitting and exercises, however, are complete breaks. On long journeys, drivers and their passengers should get out of the car, walk around and stretch every two hours. Not only will this help alleviate discomfort but, it's also critical to safe driving.