A dozen tips to combat back pain while flying

I have a bad back. I’ve had surgery to alleviate the worst of my back troubles, but sitting still, especially in a poor physical position for more than a half hour or so, causes me much pain.

Back pain isn’t an uncommon problem for adults. According to the Mayo Clinic, most people in the US will experience low back pain at least once during their lives. Back pain is one of the most common reasons people go to the doctor or miss work. In fact, 23.9% of doctors’ office visits in the US are for back pain. Plus, comprehensive back and neck pain guides have been written about this issue. So it’s not surprising that many travelers, like me, fly suffering from it.

Let’s face it, the airlines haven’t chosen the basic economy seat “C” shape because it’s the ideal for air traveler comfort, but because it’s an efficient shape to permit them to cram in more seats. If people were shaped like shrimp, it would be perfect for us, but we’re not.

In large part due to its shape, the airline economy seat lacks adequate support for the human body. When deplaning from long flights, we even hear healthy passengers regularly complaining about achy backs, necks, and legs.

By reclining their seats back, air travelers can reduce the problems of their seat’s shape, at least a little. So, while many passengers behind them hate it, it’s no wonder countless travelers recline their seat backs in cramped economy cabins.

Sports’ Medicine experts tell the human spine was designed for motion, not to be still for hours at a time sitting in airplanes. There are preventatives and actions we can take to moderate the problems of sitting in planes during long flights.

Mitigating inflight back problems starts with preparation well before your flight’s departure.

• Book your flight to minimize your total transit time. The sooner you can get to your destination, the easier it will be for you.

• If you can, book a first class or business class seat. If it’s out of your budget, perhaps you have enough frequent flier miles to make the purchase. If you’re stuck in economy, like most travelers, try to get an exit row seat, if possible, or at least an aisle seat. Aisle seats give you a bit of wiggle room and more freedom to get out of your seat as necessary. Exit row seats typically have more legroom.

• If you use medication for your back, make sure you have plenty of it for your entire trip, and keep it in your carry-on for inflight access, and to help ensure it doesn’t get lost or stolen. Make sure your medication is in its original container to minimize trouble in case of an inspection.

• Pack as light as you can, especially if you’re going to carry your own bags, including your carry-ons. Don’t be afraid to tell your flight attendant about your back and ask for assistance stowing it in the overhead bin.

• Pack music you like, videos, a book or something else to keep you occupied while you’re flying to take your mind off your back. To reduce weight, you can use a tablet which can store all kinds of entertainment, including books.

• Wear clothing that allows you to move around freely and sit comfortably while flying. It’s more important than making a fashion statement.

Once you’re in the plane, consider these suggestions:

• For many travelers, economy seats force your lower back into unnatural, stressful position. Bring a back roll or pillow to put behind your back to help keep your spine straight and prevent slouching. If you can snag a pillow or blanket (doubtful on many airlines in economy) you can use it behind your back.

• If you’re short, you might need to put something under your feet to sit with good posture. I’ve seen passengers bring folding plastic stands for that purpose.

• Recline your seat politely and slowly to improve its shape, but on flights with economy meal service, put your seat upright during the meal.

• Let the flight attendants know you have a bad back (I have a letter from my physician if documentation is needed), and that you’ll be periodically getting up to stretch and move around every 20 to 30 minutes or so. As long as I’ve explained about getting up often, in advance, to the flight attendants, I’ve never had a problem moving about the cabin when the seat belt sign was off.

• For long periods, when you can’t get up due to meal or beverage service, or when the seat belt sign is on for a prolonged period, do stretching exercises while seated. Like getting up and about, they can help alleviate pain and pressure from your back.

• Drink lots of water during your flight. The low pressure and humidity conditions on planes tend to dehydrate passengers. Getting dehydrated, especially if taking medication, is a problem for those with back, disc, and joint pain problems. Avoid alcoholic and caffeinated beverages such as coffee, tea, and colas, as they act as diuretics.