Many of my sciatica clients are constantly telling me the worst positions or activity for them is driving their car.
If you drive 30+ minutes to and from work every day, if your job requires you to drive long hours, or, if you’re the designated driver in your family – it’s likely you’ve experienced back pain.
It’s estimated that nearly 60 percent of drivers report having back pain at some point in their life, and a lot of the people we see at the Volk Physical Therapy come to us in pain as a result of spending 30 minutes plus on the road, almost daily!
The big question is ‘Why does something as simple as driving trigger off back pain when it’s not exactly strenuous?” Well, driving for long periods of time exposes the body to many different forces such as acceleration, sudden stops, and most notably vibrations from the road – and it especially affects those of us who drive larger heavy goods vehicles for hours at a time!
In addition to the above, driving also involves the use of your feet to control the car’s pedals which means they are not used to help stabilize and support your lower body as they normally would when you’re sitting.
So, it’s no wonder why a combination of these factors as well as the inadequate design of some vehicle seats can cause back problems for many of us.
Because back pain can make driving unpleasant (and in some cases, unbearable!) I went ahead and put together a list of tips to help make your next journey as comfortable as possible.
Here are 7 tips to help you:
1. Get comfortable before you begin your drive
A small irritation can quickly grow into an unbearable pain, and if you’ve got a long drive ahead, or even if you’re just in the car for 20 minutes, this can make your trip unpleasant and may likely affect the rest of your day.
So, before you set off, take a few moments to settle into a comfortable position. Check your mirrors, adjust your seat – this is particularly important if you share your car as, these may have been changed by another driver and you don’t want to strain your body, or have to turn awkwardly when driving placing strain on your neck and upper back!
2. Adjust your mirrors
Making sure your mirrors are in the right position is especially important so you don’t have to move or twist to see out of them properly. As a general rule, you should only have to move your eyes to be able to see out of your mirrors.
Tip: If you adjust them while sitting up straight – if you begin to slouch you’ll lose vision in the mirrors, which will act as a reminder to sit up.
3. Use a towel for support
For additional support while driving – roll up a towel and place it behind your lower back. Car seats don’t often support the curve of your back enough. By using a towel you’ll help yourself out by maintaining good posture, making back pain a lot less likely to creep up.
4. Make sure you’re sitting comfortably
Most people don’t realize it, but when they’re driving their seat is positioned completely wrong, which can cause back pain and problems with posture. As you take a seat, make sure your seat is only slightly reclined so that it feels natural to sit comfortably – think 100 degree angle instead of 90, and you’ll be sitting in about the right position to drive pain free.
If you recline your seat too far, your head won’t be able to comfortably rest against the head – rest which can cause tension in your neck and upper back.
5. Take regular breaks
I know you see signs for ‘taking a break’ along the side of the road all the time – but it’s for good reason. Stopping regularly (around every hour) to move and stretch will help ease any tension and reduce any muscle stiffness.
When you take a break, do some gentle twists to loosen the body up. And if your neck and shoulders are feeling tense – try shrugging and rolling your shoulders back and forth, then rolling your neck from side to side.
6. Have cruise control? Use it!
If your car has cruise control, use this when you can – usually on long stretches of road when it’s quiet or the traffic is flowing nicely.
While using it, place your feet on the floor so your legs form a 90-degree angle and gently push them down into the floor. This will help naturally support your spine and put you in a neutral position without having to press down on the pedal constantly.
7. Exercise regularly
Even just adding exercise into your routine 2-3 times a week will help strengthen your back muscles, release tension and help you maintain a healthy posture.
Cardio exercises like cycling, walking and swimming are great for overall fitness, and weights are perfect for improving muscle strength.
If your back pain is really bad, making you fearful of participating in exercise activities, because you fear it will make you worse, you can always seek out the help of a physical therapy specialist. Please feel free to reach out if you have any questions.
Dean Volk, PT, is the owner and senior therapist with Volk Physical Therapy& Sports Medicine in Concord.