How to Fly With a Bad Back

Jun 10, 2018

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Over time our bodies become less pliable, and the bumps and bruises we experienced as younger versions of ourselves sometimes manifest into chronic issues that plague the frequent traveler. For most, it’s issues with their neck and/or back. While I’m no international businessman, I do travel domestically for business once or twice a week, to the tune of about 100,000 miles a year.

I also briefly competed as a Division 1 high jumper in college over 12 years ago, and that 10-step approach combined with the twisting of my spine over the bar in the technique perfected by Dick Fosbury has done a number on the lumbar and thoracic regions of my back and left hip. I still struggle with lingering back pain — and not surprisingly, flying exacerbates that.

Here are a few (temporary) remedies I’ve found that have helped relieve my back pain while I’m stuck in a chair criss-crossing the sky:

Nonstop flights
The less amount of time you can spend in the air, the better. Not only are airplane seats small and uncomfortable, but the frequent pressure changes of a multiple-leg flight don’t do the back muscles any good. Even if the direct option is more expensive, a simple cost-benefit analysis will usually spit out the answer you need.

Business or Economy Plus seating
Membership has its privileges, and one of the biggest benefits of my Premier Platinum status on United is getting first choice of Economy Plus seating upon booking. With several inches of extra legroom, it gives me just enough additional space to stretch my bad hip into the aisle. Speaking of which…

United Economy Plus. Photo by Zach Honig / The Points Guy.
United Economy Plus. Photo by Zach Honig / The Points Guy.

Aisle seat or bust
Everybody has their own personal preference when it comes to aisle seat vs. window. Most prefer a window seat if they’re planning on sleeping and others dislike the occasional jostling of the shoulder that happens when sitting by the aisle. However, if you’re prone to spasms like me, you have to get up and walk around every two hours at least. Sitting at the aisle allows you to do this freely without disturbing anybody.

Stretch
In addition to getting up and moving, periodic stretching helps promote blood flow to your muscles. No matter how strange you may think it looks, find some room in the aisle or bulkhead and do some basic compound stretches. A forward lunge to stretch your hip, quad stretches and wall sits to wake up your legs, and my personal favorite: the sideways toe touch. Here’s how this looks: stand normally with your hips facing forward. Rotate your torso to either the left or right while keeping your hips facing forward. Then stretch your arms down to touch your toes. You probably won’t but you’ll feel a nice deep stretch in your lumbar muscles and IT bands.

Comfortable clothing
In order to properly get the range of motion needed for all that stretching, make sure to wear comfortable, loose clothing while flying. Gone are the days of wearing suits to the airport, but even now jeans and sneakers do nothing to help your case. A nice pair of workout pants and slip on shoes paired with a breathable T-shirt will help you feel relaxed and nimble. If you’re flying for business you can always change into your work outfit at the destination airport.

Check everything
If you’re afforded free checked bags and aren’t in a hurry when you arrive, check everything. Nothing aggravates a back issue more than lugging a heavy roll-on suitcase and backpack through an airport, down an aisle and above your shoulders into an overhead bin. My advice? Pack everything you don’t need for the flight into your checked bag and bring your electronics, a change of clothes and any additional support items onboard with you.

Create your own support
Even in upgraded Economy Plus seating with additional legroom, there isn’t going to be enough support for your low back or hips, as the seats are worn down from constant use. My solution is to simply roll up a sweatshirt or ask for an extra pillow to place against my lower back for extra support. Some people take it a step further and pack a small lumbar cushion in their carryon bag. On international flights I’ll sit on a pillow or two the entire flight to elevate my hips and provide my backside with extra cushioning.

Pack a lacrosse ball
A lacrosse ball is a small, lightweight self massaging tool you can bring with you on any trip, be it by plane or car. Place it on the ground and use it to massage the bottom of your foot or in between your back and seat cushion to really dig into knots along your shoulder and spine. They’re $5 and I have one in every piece of luggage I own.

Lots of water
Studies show that human beings lose 2-8% of their bodily water due to the dryness of airplane conditions. This means that your muscles, which already aren’t receiving proper blood flow due to the altitude, are very dehydrated. Pack two giant bottles of water, ask flight attendants if they can refill them, always ask for two glasses of water when they offer and pop some fish oil pills before takeoff. This is where sitting on the aisle is also beneficial because you’ll definitely be using the bathroom.

Yoga rooms
Let’s say you didn’t book a direct flight and are now stuck in an airport on layover for the next few hours, or your flight is massively delayed. Even if you aren’t a yogi, a room to do some stretching away from the hustle and bustle of the traditional terminal might be just the remedy you need before or between flights. Here are a few airports that have yoga rooms:

  • San Francisco International Airport (SFO)
  • Chicago O’Hare (ORD)
  • Chicago Midway (MDW)
  • Dallas-Fort Worth Airport (DFW)
  • Burlington Airport (BTV)
  • Sioux Falls Airport (FSD)
  • Helsinki Airport (HEL)
  • London Heathrow Airport (LHR)
  • Frankfurt Airport (FRA)

Namaste.

Overpriced Xpress Spas
Last and certainly least, if you’re in a pinch (that is, you have a pinched nerve) and you need some quick focalized work done on your back or neck, in-airport spas are there for your relief. At a price of $2.30 a minute for a back or neck massage it’s certainly not something I’d recommend regularly but hey, relief’s relief.

There you have it. Listen to your body and give it what it’s asking for. While I can’t promise these tips will make your flying experience stress-free, I hope they bring it a little bit closer to being pain-free.

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