12 Healthy Spine Tips for Travelers

Back pain caused by travel can be prevented.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s study of ergonomics, some of the most common causes of musculoskeletal disorders, such as back and neck pain, include being in awkward positions for extended periods of time, vibration, and static postures. Translation: long car rides, cramped plane seats, and awful hotel beds on vacation can hurt your back.

Traveling can be bad for your back and neck health–but it doesn’t have to be. Frequent travelers and vacationers can prevent backaches, stiff necks, and overall soreness by steering clear of some classic mistakes.

For example, they pack way too much, and then strain their back pulling and lifting their suitcases (Do you really need all those outfits? Will you really read five books in a week?). They wear stylish but impractical shoes for flying, and then hurt themselves walking a quarter mile or more inside the airport. Or they schedule way too much physical activity into their trip —trapeze lessons, beach volleyball, exploring the rainforest–and are then miserable because their bodies aren’t accustomed to this rigor.

Back pain is not trivial. It is the most common type of pain Americans experience, according to the National Institute of Health Statistics survey. Virtually all of us will have back pain at some point in our lives, and more than 26 million Americans between the ages of 20 and 64 experience frequent back pain. It is also the leading cause of disability in Americans under 45 years old. The CDC reports that adults with low back pain were three times as likely to be in fair or poor health and more than four times as likely to experience serious psychological distress as people without low back pain.

Unfortunately, some of the best opportunities to hurt your back and neck actually happen on vacation–while you’re in the car, on the plane, or sleeping on a lousy hotel bed. Here are some travel tips to keep your spine healthy.

Sit right. Adjusting your car seat helps you avoid stiffness, strains, and soreness after a long drive. Put your seat back in the upright position (not at 90 degrees but a little more like 105 degrees), not leaning back so you look out the backseat window. Move the whole seat forward and tilt it so your feet are flat on the floor and the knees are elevated slightly higher than your hips.

Look in the mirror. A great way to make sure you are sitting upright and not slouching is to adjust the rearview mirror in the morning. When we wake up, we are at our tallest because our spine is fully hydrated. We also aren’t pooped from work and hunched forward. Then don’t touch the mirror again. Adjust your posture to meet the mirror–not the other way around.

Protect your neck. The American Chiropractic Association estimated that more than 75 percent of drivers have their headrest at an inappropriate height. Reduce your chances of whiplash by raising the headrest so the middle of it meets the back of your head.

Back at Your Best, spine health, travel health

Dr. Lippoff's book, Back at Your Best, can help travelers avoid back problems.

Grab the wheel. Most of us are taught to drive with our hands at the 10 and 2 o’clock position. That’s correct, as long as you drop your elbows so your arms and shoulders can relax. Alternatively, lower your steering wheel, grab the wheel at the 8 and 4 o’clock position, and use the armrest, if you have one, or rest your arms on your legs.

Stretch your neck. At stoplights or rest stops, do neck exercises. Do side-to-side head turns, and gently tip your ear to the shoulder of the same side, then repeat on the other side. This will help reduce the stress that’s been building up during your rush-hour traffic commute.

Start out slowly. When our backs are idle for 20 minutes or so, fluids creep back into the disc. As fluids enlarge the disc, it becomes more vulnerable. So when you arrive at your destination after a long drive, don’t jump out of the car and go to pick up the grandkids. Take a few minutes to just do some gentle stretches, maybe at the gas station before you arrive, and reduce the fluid buildup in your disc area. Your entire body will benefit from doing some easy stretches to loosen and warm up your muscles.

Lighten your load. Before you even get onto a crowded and cramped airplane seat, you face a bigger hazard: luggage. Pack as lightly as you can manage. Take advantage of curbside check-in if available so you don’t have to haul the bags yourself. A few bucks as a tip to keep your back healthy? Priceless.

Balance your load.When you carry bags, try to balance the load–a roller in one hand, your hand luggage in the other. On long walks through airports, trade sides regularly. If you have a suitcase with wheels, load everything on it and push, don’t pull it. Pushing keeps the weight in front of you centrally, giving you better control.

Fly in comfort. Onboard the plane, here are some ways to achieve the healthiest position. Place a neck pillow or rolled-up blanket behind your neck to support it so the headrest isn’t pushing your head forward. Do the same behind your lower back to support the lumbar spine. If you can, use your carry-on like a footstool to raise your knees above the level of your hips. For reading, pull out the tray and place a pillow or your rolled-up jacket on it, then put your reading material on top so you don’t have to bend your neck down to read.

Circulate this. Never aim the airplane fan to blow directly on your neck–it can cool down your neck muscles and cause spasms and neck pain later. Circulate the air around you; don’t point it on you. Same with the fan in the hotel.

Have some pillow talk. If you have a favorite pillow and can afford the luggage space, bring it along, because hotel pillows are, well, hotel pillows are notoriously awful. If the hotel only has big pillows and you’re a back sleeper, beat the thing silly or try to move some of the fiber around to make a dip for your head. Your goal with pillows is to keep your neck in a neutral position that’s similar to when you are standing or looking straight ahead. Be sure to look in the closet or call the front desk–they may have more pillows to choose from.

Repurpose the towels. You can improvise your own perfect pillow using a towel from the bathroom and folding it to look like a wedge-shaped cervical pillow–the thicker part of the wedge goes under your neck, the thinner part under your head. Or simply roll up a towel, put it behind your neck, and sleep on a pillow thick enough to keep your ears in line with your shoulders on the big pillow. The idea here is to support your neck so it’s in alignment with your spine, not bent forward.

by Dr. Jay M. Lipoff, CFT, Adapted from his new book, “Back at Your Best,”

Dr. Jay M. Lipoff, CFT

Dr. Jay M. Lipoff, CFT, ( has been a private practice chiropractor since 1994, and is a certified fitness trainer. A nationally recognized expert in spinal injury prevention, he has taught at universities, lectured before professional audiences, and appeared on national radio and TV with his messages on health and injury prevention. His new book is Back at Your Best: Balancing the Demands of Life with the Needs of Your Body