Tips to avoid the most common holiday travel back injuries

Holiday travel can be tough on your back, but positioning your body correctly and dealing with luggage appropriately can help prevent painful conditions from developing, according to a D.C.-area doctor of pain medicine.

“Sitting in any position puts about 50% more stress on the back than just standing, or even walking or moving around,” Dr. Assaf Gordon with National Spine and Pain Centers said from his office in Fair Oaks, Virginia.

If you’re making long trips, Gordon recommends giving your back regular breaks.

“Get up and stretch, and get out of the car every hour, hour-and-a-half. More so than you would usually, because of the increased stress on the back (from) prolonged sitting,” Gordon said.

More advice for drivers include:

  • Position the back of your seat straight up so your neck doesn’t crane forward.
  • Sit as far away as you can from the pedals so you’re not hunched over the steering wheel.
  • Keep your ears, shoulders and hips in a straight line by sitting far away from the pedals.
  • Most headrests in modern cars can be flexed forward by about 30 degrees. If necessary, bring the neck support forward to a normal comfortable position for your neck while driving.
  • Stretch your back periodically by holding onto the steering wheel with both arms while extended, pushing back into the seat and holding the position for a few seconds.
  • Lose the wallet in your back pocket. Sitting on a wallet can strain your lower back. “The thicker the wallet, the more unevenly you sit on your back,” Gordon said.

“Symmetry is something that’s important in terms of chronic overuse. It’s usually that asymmetry in whatever people are performing — either prolonged sitting, walking, running, athletic activities — it’s that asymmetry that often leads long term to injuries,” Gordon added.

And, his advice for car passengers:

  • Keep your feet on the floor with your knees at a right angle. Drivers can do this too when using cruise control.
  • Stretch your neck by gently leaning your head backward with your eyes looking up. When you feel the stretch, hold the position for 20 seconds.
  • During pit stops, get out and walk around to get blood circulating.

Don’t over pack: Suitcases should weigh only 30 pounds or less, Gordon added.

Avoid heavy lifts and twists that can cause what Gordon likens to the stuffing being squeezed out of a jelly doughnut. The discs between the bones of your spine have a soft inner material and a hard outer ring. Heavy lifts and twists can squeeze the inner material free from where it’s supposed to be and cause an excruciatingly painful condition that’s commonly referred to as a slipped disc, a disc bulge, or throwing out your back.

Technically called a herniated disc, Gordon said it’s the most common injury his specialty sees around holidays.

To lift luggage into a car or on an airplane’s overhead bin, Gordon said to move your feet to rotate your entire your body vs. lifting and twisting.

Bending at the waist should be avoided.

“If you’re picking up something from the floor and you just bend at the waist, that puts a lot of stress on the back,” Gordon said. “You want to bend at the knees, sort of assuming a position like a catcher on a baseball field.”

Here are other recommended best practices for dealing with suitcases:

  • When lifting suitcases into cars or overhead racks, do it in stages. First, place the luggage on a chair, stool or seat, so you don’t strain yourself.
  • Lift suitcases close to your body, always bending at the knees so you use leg muscles vs. your back.
  • Don’t drag a bag with wheels up stairs. Picking it up and carrying it is better for your body.
  • Consider ditching the suitcase and using instead a backpack. Just make sure to use both straps so the weight is evenly distributed.

And, when traveling on a plane:

  • If you place an item underneath the seat ahead, put it in the middle so your legs can stretch out on either side.
  • Before boarding the plane, walk around and stretch instead of just sitting around at the gate.

What about those airplane neck cushions?

Doctors at National Spine and Pain Centers believe they’re a waste of money. The cushions are typically so thick that they push your head forward, which can strain your neck and ligaments. Instead, they recommend using a bunched up sweatshirt or jacket behind your neck to keep it in an upright, tall position.

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Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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