Tips for Traveling with Spine and Back Pain with Dr. Brandon Claflin

It’s the holidays and you absolutely must attend a family or other gathering. Traveling there and back is often a challenge, when you have spine and back pain. The good news is that Dr. Brandon Claflin of Oklahoma shares his recommendations to minimize your pain.

Driving to Your Destination

Driving may cause low back pain or other signs and symptoms in not only those with existing low back pain, but also those without it. Scientists have found that the vibration of the vehicle contributes to part of the pain that drivers and passengers feel.

One study on low back pain during driving found that pain was significantly related to the following: the amount of time spent driving a car; the comfort of the car seat; carrying loads while working; standing for long periods of time during the day; and smoking. “This tells us that you have a lot of control over your pain during travel,” Dr. Brandon Claflin of Oklahoma stated.

So what is it that you can do when driving to your destination? Take a look at these four options below.

  1. For car rides of more than an hour, bring a cold pack and heating pad that can plug into a power source, unless you have heated seats.
  2. Share driving with another person.
  3. Take a 15-minute break every one to two hours of driving. On your break, get out and walk to improve the circulation to your back, pelvis and legs.
  4. Use an optimal driver’s seat model:
  5. The adjustable seat back should incline to 100 degrees from horizontal.
  6. The depth of the seat back to the front edge of seat bottom should be changeable.
  7. The seat height should be adjustable to fit the height of your foot on the floor to the knee, where your feet are perpendicular to the floor.
  8. The incline of the seat bottom should be adjustable.
  9. The seat bottom cushion should be a firm, dense foam.
  10. The lumbar support should be horizontally and vertically adjustable. Support your spine with a lumbar support to reduce the lumbar lordosis that happens from sitting, when the pelvis rotates backward.
  11. The armrests should be bilateral and adjustable.
  12. The head restraint with lordosis pad should also be adjustable.

An optimal driver’s seat allows more sustained driving than conventional seating devices, by several hours. Adjust your seat every way that you can. If you are renting a car, make sure your body fits the vehicle, and that the driver’s seat is optimal.

Flying to Your Destination

“One of the very first considerations for flying is about the booking of your flight. Choose a flight that will coincide with the least amount of stress,” Dr. Brandon Claflin of Oklahoma noted. For some people, this will be an afternoon flight, not a morning flight.

Here are additional guidelines:

  1. TSA Precheck costs $85 for a 5-year membership but you never have to remove shoes or other clothes. Order it ahead of time. It can save you up to 10 minutes – and a lot of pain!
  2. Call ahead to ask about wheelchairs or carts for transportation within the airport.
  3. Get to the airport earlier, as people move slower when they are in pain.
  4. If you have to stand for long periods of time, prop up one of your feet on a bag, step or curb. This will decrease the forces on your spine.
  5. At the airport, TSA will assign a helper to assist you in getting through security and to your gate. Call 855-787-2227. A doctor’s note makes this easier. Such a note will also prove to the inflight crew that there is a legitimate medical reason for your regular movement during the flight.
  6. Try to choose an aisle seat where you won’t have to twist your body, or attempt to step over other people while getting in and out.
  7. Once in your seat, keep your feet flat on the floor. You may need a foot rest that is foldable.
  8. Recline your seat, as it’s a lot more comfortable than sitting upright the whole flight.
  9. Move around as much as possible on the flight. Visit the restroom, for example. It is important to move because the longer the flight, unless you move around, the greater the chance for blood clots.

Both Driving and Flying

These next guidelines are useful for both driving and flying.

  1. Pack your pain medications in an easily accessible compartment of your luggage. Your pain prescriptions may be muscle relaxants that help alleviate nerve pain, and/or the pain from herniated discs. Over-the-counter medications may include Tylenol or anti-inflammatory medicines.
  2. Use a travel pillow. These may be available in the stowaway bins.
  3. Use a lumbar back support pillow.
  4. Use a neck support to support your cervical spine, and to relax the muscles on both sides of the spine in the neck region.
  5. Don’t sit on your wallet or phone. This encourages the development of sciatica.
  6. Consider doing exercises such as the pelvic tilt exercise while sitting.
  7. Stretch every chance you get.
  8. Work out before the flight, so that your muscles are strong before your trip.
  9. Move frequently, about once every hour.
  10. Pack lightly to avoid straining your back with luggage.
  11. Consider getting pain injections prior to your trip. “A round of injections can help substantially, when given prior to a trip,” Dr. Brandon Claflin of Oklahoma said.

Pain Control During Your Entire Trip

Finally, consider the guidelines below, regarding the actual time spent during the travel.

  1. Prior to your trip, consider getting an electrical stimulation device from your doctor (TENS, NeuroMD, etc.).
  2. Ask your doctor if you will need a specialized lumbar decompression back brace.
  3. Stretch. Moving can help reduce some of the pain.
  4. Do deep breathing exercises, which affects your autonomic nervous system positively, often reducing pain.
  5. Drink enough water. Pain worsens with dehydration, especially if you have disc degeneration.
  6. Ask for help when stowing your luggage in the overhead bin.
  7. Engage your own body’s endorphins and raise their levels with meditation, prayer, music, or laughter. Looking at smiling faces – and smiling yourself – also helps give you a quick lift.

“No matter which way you are traveling, there are many ways you can make a difference in your pain level. Utilize these lists, and most importantly, don’t be afraid to reach out to your spinal pain management physician. Together, they can make a bigger difference than only doing one of them,” Dr. Brandon Claflin of Oklahoma stated.