Back Pain

30 March 2017

4 tips for frequent flyers to prevent back pain

Travelling can put a lot of strain on your back, especially when sitting in a plane for hours on end. Here are a few tips to keep your back on track.

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There is nothing quite like the excitement of travelling to new places, but between you and your dream destination there will probably be at least one long flight.

According to the South African Society of Physiotherapy, three of the major causes of back pain are poor posture, inactivity and prolonged exposure to sitting, all of which are synonymous with a long flight.

Back-bending hurdles

Prof Alan Hedge, Director of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory at Cornell University, writes that travelling can pose various challenges to people who suffer from back pain.

“Just consider the travel experience: there's the standing in the security line, shifting your weight back and forth as you plan your strategy for getting everything on the conveyor belt as fast as possible and then waiting at the gate in those hard chairs. And all that happens before you even get on the plane.”

Luckily, there are plenty of ways to overcome these back-bending hurdles before and during your flight. Prof Hedge suggests that frequent flyers consider the following things to prevent back pain:

1. Choose your seat carefully

Keep your body height in mind when choosing a seat. If you're tall, book an aisle seat for the flight. Shorter people may want to consider taking a foot elevation device with them.   

2. Keep space for your feet

Keep adequate space under the seat in front of you for your feet. If you have a larger bag, put it in the overhead storage bin. If you have a smaller bag, position it centrally with your feet to either side or use it to elevate your feet.

3. Move your feet and legs

Keep your feet in front of you at all times. Try to stretch out your legs, and keep your feet and legs moving. This will aid circulation and reduce fatigue, as well as decrease your chances of suffering a potentially fatal blood clot (deep vein thrombosis).

4. Exercise in the air

According to Emirates Airlines, there are a few in-seat exercises that you can do to stay physically active during a long flight. Aim to do these simple exercises every few hours to keep your blood circulating and prevent backache:

  • Bottom lifts: lift one buttock off the seat by tightening the muscles on that side. Hold for five seconds. Repeat each side five times.
  • Feet circling: circle your feet at the ankles, 20 times per foot.
  • Back presses: press the small of your back into the seat, letting your shoulders come forward. Alternate with pressing your shoulders into the seat. Repeat five times.
  • Foot presses: lift heels and press toes into the floor, then lift your toes and press your heels into the floor. Do this 10 times for each foot.
  • Shoulder circles: with arms at your sides, circle shoulders forwards 10 times and then backwards 10 times.
  • Knee presses: press knees and thighs together and tighten your buttock muscles. Hold to the count of five. Repeat five times.
  • Head circles: slowly circle your head in one direction and then the other. Repeat 10 times.

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Ask the Expert

Backache expert

Susan qualified as a Physiotherapist in 1990, and completed her master’s degree in Physiotherapy in 2013 at the University of Pretoria. She has a special interest in human biomechanics, as well as the interaction between domestic and work-related ergonomics.

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