Here’s a scenario that’s probably easy for you to imagine: You’ve just endured a grueling flight to a far-off travel destination. After your arrival at the airport, you spot your luggage on the baggage carrousel. But as grab it, you feel that scary twinge in your back that feels like a pulled muscle or worse.
If this sounds like something you’ve experienced, you have plenty of company. Thousands of Americans suffer low back injuries when traveling each year. And, the truth is, the end of a long journey is the most dangerous moment for a traveler’s back, according to orthopedic specialists.
“When you rush to get your luggage and throw it on the cart to be the first to get customs and out, that’s when you can your hurt your back,” says Dr. Garth Russell, founding member of the Columbia Orthopedic Group in Missouri.
Travel can be a prescription for back pain and injury, experts agree. The long periods of forced immobility in airplanes, lifting the luggage packed with heavy documents or vacation gear, the fatigue, and the time pressure — not to mention the less-than-firm hotel beds — can add up to back spasms and sciatic nerve pain.
Since back pain is the most frequent cause of lost work days after the common cold, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, it’s crucial take prudent precaution to protect your back when traveling.
“Summer vacation can spell disaster for your aching back if you don’t pay attention to how you move and how you prepare yourself for the journey,” says Dr. Richard Berger, a noted orthopedics surgeon and assistant professor of orthopedics at Rush University in Chicago. “People will be traveling in planes, trains and cars for hours and back pain can ruin even the best laid vacation plans.”
But Berger tells Newsmax Health a handful of back-saving tips can be the difference between a great vacation and a panful experience away from home. Here are his best suggestions:
Lift luggage in stages. “Move slowly and deliberately,” he says. “It’s the sudden jerking movements going full throttle that injure most patients.”
Never twist while lifting. This common error is the most frequent way people injure their back, says Berger, who explains that it takes much less force to cause injury when twisting than when lifting straight up and down.
Ask for help if you have back trouble. “Don’t hesitate to ask another passenger or flight attendant for help,” he says. “Explain your condition and most folks will be happy to assist.”
Ship bags instead. Mail your essentials to the designated destination and avoid luggage entirely. “With airline fees for checked luggage skyrocketing, this may also turn out to be an economical solution, too,” he says
Pack light. Moving a few light bags instead of one very heavy one, will likely avoid back injuries. “This is especially true if you are on an extended vacation with multiple stops so you have to transfer your bags in and out of your vehicles or into overhead bins and compartments,” he notes.
Plan for medication. If you are running low on your pain medication, get new prescriptions from your doctor and fill them so that you have enough. It may seem obvious but do not check medication with your luggage. “You may need them in flight or you may get delayed so that you may need more meds that you originally expected,” he says. Also: Bring backup over-the-counter medications such as Tylenol, Motrin or Aleve.
Ice, ice, baby. If you do suffer a back injury a pack of ice may be your first line of defense. Your flight attendant can fill a bag for you. Place it on your back for 20 minutes, then off for 20 minutes. Products like Icy Hot or Bengay Pain relief medicated patches may also provide relief.
Heat wraps work. There are disposable, portable hot packs that heat up after you open them and you can apply them as needed. Ask your pharmacist to suggest a few brands and check with your airline to make sure they allowed.
Muscle relaxants. These not only treat but may avoid back issues during a long flight. Ask your doctor if they are right for you.
Get the right seat. An aisle seat makes it easier to get in and out of your seat. Moreover, an aisle seat offers you the freedom to get up and move around more frequently.
Get up and move. This is crucial because sitting for an extend period of time stiffens the back muscles, putting stress on the spine and can cause pain. Get up to stretch often. Stretch the hamstrings muscles especially which will reduce stiffness and tension. If you are taking a road trip, stop for a stretch break every couple of hours.
Use a lumbar pillow. If you don’t own your own lumbar support, use a pillow, blanket or rolled up jacket to support the national curve of your back when traveling. Speaking of pillows, if you are staying in a hotel, your may sleep better if you bring your own pillow.