Air travel is a fact of life for many of us, whether because it’s our livelihood, our work demands it or we want to explore places that are most easily accessed by flying. There were 600 licensed air carriers in Canada in 2018 and just over 159 million passengers boarded and unloaded in Canada last year; 34.7 million of them were Canadians. In addition, for each of the flights that took off or landed in Canada, there were air crews to add to the totals.

Unfortunately, flights longer than an hour aren’t always the most comfortable for our backs and may cause or aggravate injuries. Back pain, as many of us know from personal experience, is no joke, and it is also fairly common. Statistics Canada notes that four out of five Canadians will experience at least one incidence of back pain during their lives, with the pain most likely to occur in those between the ages of 30 and 50. Back pain can impede mobility and affect quality of life, so it’s something we’d all like to forego.

Causes of Back Pain While Flying

Whether we’re flying for work or pleasure, knowing how to prevent and address the concomitant back pain is essential. For passengers, threats to our backs include long periods of sitting or standing, sleeping in an unnatural position, travel stress, lifting heavy objects, such as suitcases, and twisting the body while you’re lifting something.

For air crews, the list includes heavy lifting, reaching and lifting, twisting while lifting or holding a heavy load, lifting or carrying objects with odd shapes, sitting or standing for prolonged periods in one position, working in awkward positions, slipping on a wet floor and, perhaps, poor sleeping positions.

Preparing for the Flight

If you’re planning a trip, you can take some steps in advance to ensure that you won’t incur a back injury, or even a twinge:

  • Get a Doctor’s Note. Your physician can provide you with a letter requesting certain accommodations that will make travel smoother. These can include the ability to walk around during the flight, permission to lie down on the floor and rest, additional pillows and blankets and a possible upgrade to business class.
  • Contact the Airline. If you let your carrier know about any back issues, you can also request a wheelchair to take you from security to boarding, assistance with lifting and carrying luggage and help in boarding.
  • Pack Lightly. The fuller your bags, the heavier they are to lift and carry. Check your bags, if possible, so you have no need to hoist them into an overhead bin. If you do have a carry-on bag, ask one of the flight attendants to assist you in lifting it.
  • Adjust Your Schedule. If you have a choice, fly at a less-busy time of day so you’ll have more room to move about the aircraft and an easier time getting to the aisle, stand or stretch.
  • Prevent Inflammation. Pack your carry-on bag with ibuprofen or any other relevant medication that prevents back pain and reduces inflammation, especially if it’s an ongoing problem.
  • Keep Exercising. Maintain your exercise routine in the days leading up to a trip. Sitting in cramped quarters if you haven’t been exercising could cause muscles to spasm. Exercise keeps your muscles flexible.

Back Pain Prevention In Flight

No one is eager for a back injury, especially with the chance that it could become chronic. Here are some tips for coping with the standard discomforts as a passenger:

  • Keep Moving. Unless you’re one of those travellers who can sleep through a flight, try to book an aisle seat to make it easier to get up and walk around or stand. Doing so will help alleviate any pain and stiffness you feel from sitting in one position.
  • Recline Your Seat. Yes, it may crowd the person behind you, but it relieves the pressure on your discs caused by the standard sitting position. You will be supporting some of your weight with the backrest, rather than your spine.
  • Use a Back Support. Lumbar rolls and back braces can provide you with additional spinal support while flying. Use a roll (or a rolled-up sweater) that supports your lower back without pushing it away from the seat.
  • Stay Hydrated. Drink water and more water for a few days in advance of travel and during travel. Cabins are dry, which can exacerbate back problems. The gel in the inner discs of the spine is also susceptible to dehydration, so drinking water is a good preventive measure against tears and bulges.

Preventive Measure for Crew Members

Airline attendants are subject to different stresses and strains that can cause back injuries. These tips can help them to keep back injuries at bay:

  • Stay Fit. You’ll need good fitness to endure long flights with all of the standing, bending, lifting and reaching your job requires. A strong core, especially, is important for preventing back injury and pain. Cardiovascular fitness is also valuable.
  • Stand Properly. When you’re on your feet, keep your head in line with your shoulders and be sure your shoulders are in line with your pelvis. Draw your buttocks and abdomen in gently – a protruding abdomen puts undue pressure on your spine. Place your feet a shoulder-width apart to distribute your weight evenly. Don’t tense up – it may actually contribute to back pain.
  • Lift With Care. If you need to lift heavy loads, do so from hip level or lower. Bend at the knees, not from the waist, to prevent injury to your back. Your body isn’t designed to twist like a Gumby; avoid doing so when you lift. Move your entire body when you turn, rather than shifting only your upper body. Keep the load close to your centre of gravity – at your chest, rather than down near your hips.
  • Don’t Overreach. When you reach with one hand, be sure to find a stable anchoring point with the other.If you use your feet alone to balance while the trunk is tight and twisting, you can pull muscles in your lower back.
  • Watch Those Bends and Turns. If you need to bend, do so from the waist and don’t turn at the same time. Turn the entire body, rather than turning from the waist.

If you have concerns about back pain, either before or after your flight, your physiotherapist can be invaluable helping you address your concerns.

Is air travel causing you back pain?