So, you’ve saved up some cash, bought your tickets, packed the luggage, filled out all the necessary forms required these days and even (if you are Canadian) downloaded the ArriveCAN app.

You settle in your seat on the plane and relax in anticipation of the sunshine, sand and sea that awaits you. But after barely an hour in the air, a familiar ache in your lower back starts to creep in and you wiggle around in your seat trying to find some comfort.  It’s almost as if the pain was saying, “nice try, but you can’t get away from me that easily”. And you begin to realize that you’re in for a long and uncomfortable flight.

As many as 70% of people living in industrialized nations will experience non-specific low back pain at some point in their lives. That is to say, pain that has no real cause or definable moment of injury. This type of pain can be a real obstacle to truly enjoying a vacation that calls for long walks on the beach, swimming, and general relaxation. It can also make flying a real problem.

So, what can one do when you are stuck on a plane faced with such non-specific lower back pain?

As we say in the world of physical rehabilitation: “Your best posture is your next posture”. Throughout history, humans have been enthralled with the idea of the perfect posture, even inventing a variety of almost torturous devices to achieve this idealistic posture (corsets, to name but one). However, the reality is that while the human body is capable of amazing feats, including twisting into a myriad of positions and handling pressures several times one’s own body weight, it is not particularly well suited for a sedentary lifestyle. Every joint in your body, especially your spine, is meant to bend, twist, flex, compress, decompress, several times a day to lubricate itself and maintain pain-free function.

So, simply put, you need to prioritize movement every day! If you can move in a variety of ways that are suitable for your current fitness level, you will face far less skeletal pain than those who opt to be sedentary. Not surprisingly, this applies as much on a long flight as anywhere else.

Four simple exercises can make all the difference in the world when it comes to managing lower back pain over a long flight.

  1. Once on the plane, make it a priority to get up and move – ideally every 30 to 60 minutes. Whether this means walking up and down the aisles when the seatbelt light is off or making frequent trips to the washroom. You may not make any friends with other passengers in your aisle, but your back will thank you.
  2. Even from the ‘comfort’ of your seat, you can start by paying attention to your posture. Leaning to one side or the other, slouching, or crossing your legs, can all lead to increased discomfort over time. To counter this, it is important that once seated you do your best to remain upright. Lean back in your seat (perhaps even adding a pillow behind your lower back) and keep your feet flat on the floor and in as extended a position as possible.
  3. You can also do what might be termed ‘chair yoga’. This involves taking familiar yoga positions and adapting them to a seated position. The popular cat-cow exercise generally involves being on all fours on the ground and extending and flexing your spine, but there is nothing stopping you from doing the same in your seat by purposefully slouching and extending your spine five to 10 times. You can also relieve tension in your back by crossing your arms and rotating as far as you can in each direction. Repeat this five to 10 times.
  4. Finally, many people suffer with sciatic pain that gets worse when seated for an extended period. Stretching and relaxing one muscle that lies deep in your buttock area can go a long way to relieving sciatic pain. This muscle, called the piriformis, is best stretched by crossing one leg over the other, with the lower part of the crossed leg resting on the other thigh. Once in this position, push down gently on the knee of the crossed leg and lean slightly forward until you feel a moderate stretch in the buttock region. Hold this stretch for 30 to 45 seconds.

Repeating these exercises as often as you can, combined with getting up and walking at least once an hour, will have you feeling loose and ready to truly enjoy your vacation.

Kristofer Lam, High Performance Rehab

Kristofer is a Registered Massage Therapist and Massage Therapy professor. For more information, see About Us.

Photo by Lynn Friedman. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

KL 2022