Staying Sane on a to travel with back pain.

Having endured an 8 hour flight recently and trapped in a window seat with two total strangers next to me who had the temerity to fall asleep almost immediately - I can only sympathise for anyone who has back pain and has to travel.

It's great if you can sleep anywhere, but sadly for many of us our busy lives really disrupt our sleep and then add enforced sitting with limited room and add in a bad back and you have all the ingredients for a bad start to a holiday or business trip.


Depending on your problem, you can consider seeing your GP and making sure you have the right drugs to help you. Do make sure you tell them where you are going, in some countries some drugs we use here are illegal there. You don't want to arrive and be arrested. For example Tramadol is illegal in Egypt, so do make sure if you are taking any prescription drugs abroad that they are ok at your destination. With consultation with your GP who know's you and your back, you can potentially make the journey more comfortable. If you are taking over the counter drugs ensure you hve enough for your journey and a bit more in case of delays.


I know it sounds obvious, but my problem was I was pinned into a window seat and stuck there until the person next to me woke up! I didn't feel happy waking them up - but then I wasn't in pain, just couldnt get to sleep like they did.

So ensure you have an aisle seat and you are at liberty to get up and move if you need to.


Take neck pillows and anything else you can sensibly pack to help you get comfortable in your seat. If you have anything in your car seat that helps you stay sane on long car journeys, you probably need the same for the plane. Yes I know you might think this is obvious but honestly so many people I know have stuff in their car and don't make the same connections to aircraft seat! Some people find it helpful to have a small towel for their lower back, try it out in the car and see if it helps.


Take a few hot and cold packs with you too. They are great at helping you control the pain levels. Heat stimulates the sensory receptors in the skin, which means that applying heat to the lower back will decrease transmissions of pain signals to the brain and partially relieve the discomfort and Ice packs will numb the area so you can use them to help damp down the pain signals. Alternating between these over 15 minute intervals should help. But don't do more than 15 minutes.


If you can stretch your hamstrings out, great. Stand with your back straight (don't bend at the waist) and heel down, toes pointing up and lean forward to stretch the back of your thigh out. Hold for a few breaths then bend the knee slightly and feel the stretch move right to the belly of your hamstring muscles.

Then stretch your hip flexors (front of your hips and thighs) either pull up your foot behind you or put your foot on something and hold, even better if you tilt your pelvis as you do it, pull your pubic bone up towards your nose to tilt it the right way, don’t stick your bum out backwards..that’s the wrong way.


If you can stand, great if not seated will work. Just turn your head left to right, slowly and gently, no fast yanking movements required. Then add your shoulders and ribcage, turn head right, turn shoulders and ribs, pause, return shoulders and ribs then return head. keep moving in both directions separating the head from your torso. If standing you can then add a third movement with the pelvis joining in. Just keep rotating around and returning back to the centre. All this lovely spinal movement will juice up your intervertebral discs and move your spine nicely incorporating the smaller spinal muscles as well as the bigger ones. If any part of the movement causes pain, then just stop before that kicks in. You might find that moving more will also dampen down the pain in that area in time.


I can usually be found at the back with the crew showing them a few Pilates moves and this is always on the list. Spines are designed to move and as long as you don't have anything going on that will be aggravated by bending forward then this is a great exercise - done well!

You start at the head, tilt it forward, roll down slowly slowly slowly through each section of the spine, stop at the bottom, roll slowly up the same way. USE YOUR this I mean, use your pelvic floor muscles a little, pull in your belly a little, or pull your waist in a bit..the lower your head goes, the more you use them. Its not a major contraction here it's just a bit of connection so that the back muscles are working BUT they also have some support from the bottom and the front of the body as well.

I prefer to use a wall to do this because you get lots of good sensory feedback as you peel the spine away from it and peel it back again, but that’s a bit hard to find on a plane and the loo door can fly open as I discovered last time I tried it. But if you start this before you go and get used to performing the exercise you can be better at it free standing than doing it for the first time on the plane.

My clients do this exercise at the beginning and the end of most of my classes. It’s my way of seeing what I am dealing with in that class that session. I might revise what I had planned if I see too many plank like movements!


For some people this can be a scary movement – it might be linked to when their back pain really kicked off. Not surprising really because their back might have been warning them a awhile and they didn’t really do anything to help thigs or just ignored it and then wham..ok sunshine, enough, I will stop you and make you take notice.

Whilst moving like a plank is understandable when coming out of the other side of a painful episode, at some point unless there is a very good reason why not, your spine should move freely and easily and you can only do that by allowing it to move gently into exercise and improve its muscle tone. The by product is that you have a much stronger happier back.

Generally people have trouble at one or two levels, when you stop moving well, the muscles at those levels are affected. It's really important at some point in your rehab to get the muscles around the areas affected good and strong again and the roll down helps with that process.


When you finally arrive, don't forget to keep up the good work. If you got moving on the plane, then keep it going. Truly your back and the rest of you will thank you big time for it. Possibly your family and friends or work colleagues as well if you are less grumpy because you are getting on top of an unhappy back. Our clients log into our online classes from our library of sessions, they know they can do a short 10 minute session every day with their phone or tablet connected to the wifi.


Stephen Irvine