Back Pain and Driving – Back Pain Center –

“Road trip” can mean different things to different people. It may mean dropping everything and following where the highway leads, or hitting the road for work, yet again. Or, it may mean family time and hearing “Are we there yet?” more times than you can count. But when you have back pain, it may mean a difficult and uncomfortable time could be in store for you.

Sitting in the car in the same position for a long period of time can trigger back pain. If you’re a passenger, you may be able to make yourself comfortable or take medications for back pain relief. But if you’re behind the wheel, you don’t have that choice — especially if you drive for a living. A study published in May 2015 in the International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health found that people who are frequently exposed to whole-body vibrations — such as from occupational driving — have double the risk of experiencing low back pain and sciatica than people who are not.

People who commute to work by car or spend a fair amount of time on the road each day may also experience pain while driving. Diane Penna, a freelance writer in Pollock Pines, California, has been living with back pain for many years, and says driving is something she can’t avoid when she needs to go somewhere. “Sitting is definitely one thing that hurts my back if I have to do it for an extended amount of time,” she says.

How to Prevent Back Pain on the Road

So how do you cover long distances if your back doesn’t cooperate? Try these tips to make the journey easier:

  • Use lumbar support. It can be something simple, like a rolled-up towel or a cushion specifally designed for support. Just be sure it’s properly placed at the small of the back, at about belt level.
  • Move your seat forward. It helps to get as close to the steering wheel as you can without becoming uncomfortable. Being this close prevents you from slouching, and also keeps you from straining to reach the pedals. Your knees should not be higher than your hips.
  • Angle your seat. The back of your seat should be adjusted to an angle of about 100 to 110 degrees to allow you to sit properly.
  • Go cruising. If your car has cruise control, use it — if it’s safe to do so. This allows you to put both feet on the floor for short periods and distribute your weight more evenly.
  • Stretch it out. Stop as often as you can, preferably every half hour or so, to get out of the car and stretch.
  • Ice it down. If you still have back pain while driving, stop for a stretch and put an ice pack against your back when you’re sitting. Ice packs help relieve back pain by numbing the area and reducing inflammation. There are disposable/portable ice and heat packs available for purchase, so if you have a few on hand, you can alternate heat and cold every 20 minutes or so.
  • Adjust your steering wheel grip. Researchers have looked into the best way to position yourself at the steering wheel if you have back pain. It used to be that new drivers were taught to hold their steering wheel at the 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock positions. But, with the advent of airbags, research has found that your hands should be at 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock. This allows you to rest your elbows on the armrests, which can help ease pain, especially in the upper back.
  • Heat your seat. Penna recommends another approach that helps her manage her back pain. While she will take half of a pain reliever tablet if she has to, she says, “I’m also thankful my new vehicle has heated seats, so I will turn them on if my back begins to spasm (even in the summer).” Heat can help with relieve pain by relaxing tight joints and muscles, decreasing the transmission of pain signals to the brain, and bringing more blood to the area (the flow of oxygen and nutrients that can help heal potentially damaged tissue). If your car doesn’t have heated seats, many stores sell heated seat covers that can be placed on the driver’s seat.

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