Spine Saving Recommendations for Road Trips

I love a good road trip. Sitting behind the wheel can be a liberating and mind-clearing experience. Everyone loves the proverbial “wind in their hair” and the road-worthy musical selections. The reflection of one’s relaxed, handsome, smiley self in the side mirror makes road-tripping a most pleasurable experience. Whether you are on your way to a out of town business engagement or a family trip to the beach house, those miles linking point A to point B can be a wonderful break from busy life.

Unfortunately, if you suffer back or neck pain, these road trips can be torture. Undoubtedly back and neck pain tend to worsen with long drives. The factors contributing to car rides being catastrophic on a “bad back” are as follows: poorly manufactured seats, chronic contraction of leg and back muscles (pedal management), and immobilization of the spine in the seated position.

When patients tell me about an upcoming extended drive, I pass on a few easy rules they can apply to road-tripping that will grossly decrease pain complaints by the time they reach their destination.

  • LAPS: Pull over once an hour and walk or jog five laps around the vehicle. This can be completed in less then three minutes. If traveling with family or a competitive business colleague, make it a race!
  • BUTT SQUEEZES: Squeeze the buttocks together for counts of ten. Do this frequently. Butt squeezes force blood through the low back and fire key core musculature. As an added benefit butt squeezes prevent road-tripping “numb-butt”.
  • WALLET: Remove the wallet out of your back pocket. If a wallet remains constantly on one side of the body it can cause pelvic unleveling that can lead to, or aggravate lower back pain.
  • LEANERS: People have a tendency to lean toward one side or the other while driving. This can wear your car seat unevenly and also create asymmetry and muscle imbalance in the spine and hips. Always sit evenly weighted on both your “sit bones”.
  • MARCH: Set the cruise control for a few minutes and mini-march the feet up and down. This action re-establishes blood flow up the backs of the legs and helps engage the core musculature.
  • LUMBAR SUPPORT: Most people only set their adjustable lumbar support in their vehicle one time. Your back does not approve of staying in one position! Every 20 minutes change the support level significantly. It is essential to provide different positions for the lumbar spine so it is not immobilized while driving. (If you are the proud owner of a classic vehicle such as a Pinto or Pacer that happens not to possess built-in lumbar support you can improvise with the use of a wallet or sweatshirt.)
  • CHIN TUCKS: Tuck your chin as though you are holding an imaginary grapefruit under it. Press the head back against the headrest for a count of ten. Use only enough pressure to “squash” a pretend grape with the back of your head. (Fruit analogies, love them.) Perform these chin tucks regularly to stretch your neck and to remind you that it is best for your neck if your chin remain aligned with your shoulders, not resting on the top of the steering wheel.
  • FOUR STRETCH: Prior to getting in your car as well as when you reach your destination it is important to perform the following stretches: quadriceps stretch, hamstring stretch, butt stretch, and hip flexor stretch (If you are not currently a patient and have not received these stretches come see us for a handout.) If your road trip is more then two hours you should make an effort to perform these same stretches periodically along your travel route.
  • STOMACH PUNCH: Imagine someone is about to punch you in the stomach. Concentrate on the natural way that you would tighten your abdominals. This is an excellent way to trigger your core musculature. Hold that contraction for ten seconds and repeat 10 times. Perform this exercise one time every hour.
  • TRANSITITIONS: Getting in and out of the car can be difficult for those with spinal issues. When getting into your vehicle open the door and sit your butt down first. Then while holding the steering wheel, tighten the core and bring both feet in together. You want to avoid the “one foot in, butt down and then drag the other foot in” as it unduly stresses the lower spine. Upon exiting the car swing both legs out and put them on the running board or ground, tighten the core and then with the support of your hand on the door handle, stand.
  • CHOCOLATE SHAKE; I had a buddy in college named Paul McDonald. Paul could potentially be nominated for the “funniest person on the planet” award. I can always remember him saying “Heath, do you want a chocolate….” he would then jump and wiggle and shake around.” Get it? A chocolate shake? Newsflash, driving is SEDENTARY, significantly more sedentary then sitting at a desk. You must move around. Practice the “Chocolate Shake” in your car seat. Take 30 seconds periodically to wiggle, squirm and move as dramatically as you can with a seatbelt on. This “wiggly” movement increases blood flow, relaxes muscles, and stimulates alertness.

Be aware that pain from a long car ride often results after the ride is over. Issues can arise   hours or days later. Don’t wait for symptoms to trigger you into performing some of the above exercises. Be proactive and you will significantly reduce those road-tripping complaints.

As you ride the dotted line to wherever your life takes you, windows down, head bobbing to your specially selected road-tripping play list, remember your body needs attention during those many miles. Keep your spine flexible and happy with the tips above and drive safely. Vroom Vroom.

Heather Denniston, DC


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