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Air Travel Tips from a Spine Surgeon

As we embark on our summer vacations, many of us will be flying to our chosen destinations. Many people complain of back pain after a long flight, and flying can irritate an already-existing back condition. Here are some tips to help you avoid back pain when flying.

Make sure your back has enough support.

Bring a pillow to support your head and neck if possible. If you’re worried about packing space when the pillow is not in use, you can purchase an inflatable travel pillow that can be deflated. Support your lower back with an airline pillow or rolled-up blanket. If you have recurring back or spine issues, you may consider bringing a lumbar support pillow or a back brace for extra support. In a pinch, roll up a jacket or sweater to support your lower back.

Be sure to sit properly.

Make sure you are sitting so that your knees are at a right angle. If needed, use pillows to prop up your feet so that your legs are in the correct position. If you have long legs, request to be seated in an exit row or bulkhead seat, which has no seat in front of it. These seats will give you more space for your legs. Store larger bags in the overhead bin, rather than at your feet; you can position smaller bags between your feet if necessary. Also, make sure that your back is properly aligned when resting against the back of the seat, and that the headrest supports the center of your head. Rest your back against the back of the seat, and avoid hunching forward.

Move around and stretch as often as possible.

Moving around keeps your blood circulating, which can help you to avoid blood clots. It also helps to deliver nutrients and oxygen to the back, which helps to keep the tissues from getting stiff. Try to walk in the aisle at least every 30 minutes, especially during long flights. If there is room, stretch out your hamstrings and hip flexors to ease tension in the lower back. While standing, bend forward at the waist, and try to touch your toes while keeping your legs straight; hold for 30 to 45 seconds.

Stay hydrated.

Avoid coffee, tea, and alcohol; opt for water instead. Flying dehydrates the body because of the high altitude involved, and drinks like coffee, tea, and alcohol encourage dehydration. Drinking water can also help prevent circulatory problems that result in stiffened tissues.

Choose carefully when booking your flight.

If possible, try to book your flight at a time of day when it is less busy; the plane won’t be as packed, so you’ll have more room to move around and stretch. If a layover is necessary, try to limit the downtime between flights. Try to get an aisle seat if you can–sitting along the aisle will make it easier to get up and stretch without disturbing others.

Pack light and be careful when lifting luggage.

Choose a suitcase with wheels and a handle that is lightweight. Pack as light as possible. If you do need to bring several items, use a few small bags rather than one large bag. When lifting your luggage, bend at the knees, using your leg muscles to do the heavy lifting. Try to distribute the weight evenly when carrying your bags. If you only have one shoulder bag, switch sides frequently to avoid putting stress on one side of the back. If you think you will need assistance, contact the airline ahead of time to set up the proper accommodations.

Follow these tips, and you flight experience should be much more enjoyable.