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From the Desk of Nichola Adams

Flying abroad? My Top Tips on how to avoid back pain on board

During the holidays millions of us fly abroad. This usually entails sunshine, relaxation and family time – but also misery during the journey, spending hours in a cramped airplane seat. So bad for your back.

I’m just back from the gorgeous Gozo, a small island off Malta. On our flight out, my daughter (who is 5ft 11) was complaining all the way. The airline we were travelling on took an over-optimistic guesstimate that we are all under 5ft 9. My long-legged daughter was not happy.

There simply wasn’t enough leg room for her. She spent the whole flight swapping awkward positions, either sitting with her legs splayed into the space left by the armrests in front of her, or sitting at an angle. Finally, exasperated, she placed her legs on my lap. Luckily, we didn’t have any strangers sharing our row.

Sitting in an uncomfortable position while flying can have a major impact on your back, so what can you do if you are crammed in? How can you help your back during air travel? Here are my Top 7 Tips:

  1. Choose your luggage wisely: Try to avoidback strain en route to and at the airport. When packing, opt for a back-pack (which is strapped across both shoulders) instead of a heavy bag (carried on one shoulder). A lightweight pull-along case is also a big help. It’ll probably have handles at the top and side, so you can spread the weight as you lift it at the check in-desk and retrieve it from the baggage carousel later.
  2. Keep active just before your flight: After you’ve passed through security, try to stay mobile and keep moving around the airport while waiting to board.
  3. Move around regularly: Sitting in the same position for a prolonged period puts a great deal of stress on your back. To minimize the impact of this, get up to walk and stretch your back every 20 to 30 minutes during the flight. You might feel you are in the way, but just go for it! Find space where the cabin crew hang out. If you do have a diagnosed issue, it might be helpful to bring a doctor’s note and alert them to the fact you need to move around.
  4. Schedule smart: Try booking a flight at a time of day when the plane is less likely to be full, so you can get up, move around and stretch on the flight more easily. Apparently, out of holiday season, flights that arrive between 6am and 7am, as well as 1pm and 2pm, are likely to be less full.
  5. Support your spine: Supporting your lower back will make a big difference. A slim back roll or even a scarf or cardigan can help to minimise slouching. This can make a big difference during longer flights.
  6. Bring heat and/or cold therapy: If you struggle with sitting for long periods, applying heat therapy can help loosen your muscles at the beginning of your flight. There are some great stick-on ones you can buy from pharmacies. After a few hours, if you are struggling with pain and inflammation, cold therapy can then help cool it down. An easily portable solution would be a cold gel.
  7. Engage your mind: Keeping your mind busy to avoid focusing or worrying about pain build-up is a useful tool. But if that isn’t helping, instead of just trying to ignore the discomfort, try visualisation. It is surprisingly easy to trick our brain into providing a little mental anaesthesia. Try for example:

· Body scan technique – notice the pain but then try focus on other pain-free parts of the body. Scan the body mentally to notice each part in turn.

· Visualisation – imagine rubbing soothing cream on the pain area and that it is reducing the pain.

· Breathing – try slowing your breathing and relaxing the area of tension. You might just notice, for instance, that your shoulders are by your ears and relaxing them back down will really help.

Happy Holidays!

Nichola Adams

Founder of Inspired Ergonomics

Nichola Adams, MSc Health Ergonomics, Tech CIEHF, ACPOHE Reg Member, is the Founder of Inspired Ergonomics.

Nichola is a specialist in back pain disorders in the workplace. Inspired Ergonomics regularly provides consultancy services to leading UK and International companies on how to reduce and prevent back pain in the workplace as well as working with rehabilitation companies.

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