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7 Tips for Traveling with Back Pain

Back pain is one of the most common ailments on the planet, with millions of sufferers in the U.S. alone. Traveling with back pain can make sitting on a long flight or lugging a heavy suitcase feel like torture. But that doesn't mean your backache should prevent you from seeing the world. The following tips will help you support your spine and reduce your pain when you travel.

man with back pain

Note: These tips are general guidelines only; they do not apply to all back problems and should not take the place of a doctor's advice. We recommend consulting with a medical professional before deciding to travel, especially if your back pain is severe.

1. Schedule your flights carefully.

Flying is the most difficult part of a trip for many people traveling with back pain; being shoehorned into a cramped economy-class seat for hours on end can leave your spine feeling like a Slinky. Some travelers prefer to minimize their time in the air by booking nonstop flights whenever possible. (This also helps you reduce the number of times you have to heave your carry-on into an overhead bin.)

Other back pain sufferers find that it's actually more comfortable to split their trip into multiple shorter legs, broken up by layovers in which they can stretch and stroll around the airport. Which strategy is right for you depends on the total length of the trip and your own body's limitations.

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2. Get up and move.

Unless you sleep well on planes and plan to conk out for the entire flight, you'll probably want to request an aisle seat on the plane. This will allow you to stand up regularly and move around the cabin without disturbing your seatmates. Sitting too long in the same position can cause stiffness and pain.

You can do some simple stretches in the back of the plane, but be sure not to get in the way of the flight attendants. (Letting them know that you have a back condition might make them a little more accommodating.) If the seatbelt sign is on and you can't get up, do some stretching in your seat, such as neck rolls or raising your hands as high as you can above your head. For more ideas, see How to Stretch on an Airplane Without Looking Like a Crazy Person.

The same advice goes for long train, bus or car rides: Get out of your seat as often as possible to change positions and walk around. Your spine will thank you.

3. Pack light.

Every extra item you put into your suitcase is one more thing you'll have to hoist into the overhead bin or drag from your car to the airport. Make it easier on yourself by packing less (our What Not to Pack can help), and consider checking any bags you can't easily lift into an overhead bin.

This advice applies after you've arrived at your destination too. When you're out exploring, consider bringing a small backpack that distributes weight evenly rather than a shoulder bag that will burden one side of your body. Tighten the straps so the pack is as close as possible to your back, which will make the bag feel lighter. If you must carry a single-shoulder bag, switch it regularly from one side to the other throughout the day.

Consider exactly how much you need to carry in that daypack. Do you really need a tablet, a phone, a guidebook, two large bottles of water, an umbrella, a fistful of random coins and a stack of tourist brochures from your hotel lobby? Spare your spine by paring down your pack to the bare essentials.

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4. Vet your hotel.

Many people who suffer from back pain find that how they sleep has a huge impact on how they feel. If you need a firm mattress for support or plenty of pillows so you can put one between your knees, check ahead of time to be sure your hotel can accommodate you. If your back pain makes it difficult to handle your luggage, you'll also want to make sure the hotel has an elevator and/or bellhops to help. Finally, if your pain is eased by gentle exercise, check to see whether the hotel has a fitness center and pool you can use.

Call or email the hotel with specific questions, and read reviews from previous travelers to get a sense of what to expect.

hotel bellhop with suitcase

5. Bring accessories.

Yes, we preached the virtues of packing light above, but one area where you shouldn't scrimp is anything that helps ameliorate your back pain. Lumbar pillows, seat cushions, heating pads ... whatever will help you feel comfortable during your trip is worth packing.

To save space, consider travel-friendly versions of your favorite accessories. For example, Therm-a-Rest offers a self-inflating lumbar pillow that weighs less then half a pound and can be flattened out between uses. (In a pinch, a rolled-up sweatshirt or jacket can also support your neck or lower back.) Massage Track makes a travel-size foam roller that's just 12 inches long.

Instead of a plug-in heating pad, consider ThermaCare HeatWraps, which provide up to eight hours of heat and can be worn under your clothing. If ice works better for you than heat, bring a zip-top plastic bag that you can fill from your hotel's ice machine -- it's cheap, and it adds no weight to your bag.

Test out any new products well before your trip. You don't want to discover on an eight-hour transatlantic flight that your shiny new pillow isn't comfortable or that you can't figure out how to inflate it.

Of course, you'll also want to bring along any medications that help you manage your back pain. Bring a few days' extra in case of flight delays or other circumstances that could unexpectedly extend your trip.

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6. Manage your stress.

Some people find that emotional tension makes their back pain worse. Most people's travel stress starts at the airport, so be sure to arrive well before your first flight and allow plenty of time for any connections so you're not racing to your gate. (Check out 16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster and 18 Best Airport Hacks for more advice on moving swiftly and confidently through the airport.)

Once in flight, settle in with your favorite tunes or a lighthearted book or movie. Deep breathing, meditation and positive visualization can help you manage both stress and pain.

Finally, don't overschedule your itinerary. Build in a little wiggle room so that you don't feel rushed and will have time to rest if your back flares up during your trip.

For more advice, see 9 Ways to Make Travel Less Stressful.

7. Treat yourself.

If you've got the means -- or the miles -- consider upgrading your seat on a long flight. Your back will feel much more comfortable in a roomy business-class seat (or even in premium economy) than you will in the back of the plane.

Another treat to consider: a massage. Visiting a local spa on the first day of your trip is a great way to soothe any lingering aches from your flight. If a full spa day is too much to ask, consider a quick, pay-by-the-minute chair massage at the airport between flights.

How do you cope with back pain when you travel?

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--written by Sarah Schlichter

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