Imagine this: You are four hours into the 17-hour long-haul flight. You are half way through the second movie of the six you plan to binge on, when you notice an ache in your lower back. You are seated two in from the aisle and your partner is soundly sleeping next to you. You twist and squirm to no avail. It doesn’t help the ache. You want to get up and move around but you are wedged in and the drinks trolley has just started its journey from the top of the aisle. Dilemma.


So, what’s going on and what will help?


Sitting for prolonged periods often puts the lumbar spine in a position that leads to lower back pain. Why?  The lumbar spine is best kept in a slightly extended position meaning it has a slight curve inward. This is the position it likes best because the lumbar discs have the least amount of pressure through them when sitting. Prolonged sitting commonly leads to the lumbar spine becoming flexed or rounded.  Often people will slump because the effort of sitting upright is tiring. The issue is that the lumbar discs of the lower back build up much greater pressure in the slumped sitting position and over a period become overloaded and may bulge. Additionally, the muscles around the lower back become overstretched and elongated in a flexed position. This is not a problem for short periods less than 30 minutes, but for prolonged periods of time such as a long-haul flight or driving the car, (or long sessions at the computer) this can and often does lead to pain and a much greater chance of a lower back injury.

Whether you are in a cramped car or feeling trapped on a long-haul flight moving, around and walking is a great way to help because it changes of the position of the lumbar spine, taking pressure off the discs, and helping the muscles to work.  


Five ways to help reduce your chance of a back injury when you are sitting and travelling for long periods


  1. Be aware of your sitting posture –try not to slump
  1. Sit upright, lifting your sternum and relaxing your shoulders
  2. Roll up a small towel and place it behind your back – between the upright back rest of your seat and the lower back. This will help the lumbar spine stay in a better position with a slight arch. This slightly arched position takes pressure off the discs.
  3. Try to avoid sitting for too long – take breaks and walk regularly.   This can be difficult on a long-haul flight, particularly if you are in economy class. Ideally you would aim for a break every 30 minutes to an hour. If this is problem, try for a break after every movie or swap seats with your partner! If you are travelling in a car, stop, get out walk around the car 5 times, then get back in to continue your journey
  4. When you do get to move around – don’t stand around.  If on a plane, do a few calf raises and try a few hamstring stretches when in line for the loo to get the blood pumping (Don’t worry that others might think you look weird – you’ll probably never see them again!). Ideally walk if you can. If not, try standing upright and do a few leg /hip extensions. This will also help the lower back to change its position and take the pressure off the discs and spinals muscles.


Three travel friendly exercises


Calf raises:

  • Start in a standing position with your feet at hip-width apart.  Keeping your knees straight, rise on to your toes
  • Return to the starting position, controlling the movement as you lower your heels to the ground

Hamstring stretch:

  • Place one foot forwards with your heel on the floor, toes up and the knee straight
  • Keep your back foot facing forwards and soften the back knee lowering your buttocks slightly
  • Keep your hips square maintain a straight back
  • Lean your trunk forwards and push your hips behind you, keeping your front leg straight
  • You will feel this stretch at the back of your thigh of the front leg
  • Hold this position for 20-30 seconds

Standing hip extension

  • Stand up straight holding onto a supportive surface or hands on hips.  Keep both legs straight
  • Slowly take one leg backwards, tightening your buttock muscles as you do this
    Do not lean your body forwards as you do this movement
  • Control the movement as you bring your leg back to the starting position
  • Repeat with the other leg


Happy travels, Deb.