If You Have Back Pain While Driving, Here’s What To Do
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Driving with back pain is the worst.
If you love to drive, it will ruin your fun. If you don't, the back pain will make your chore even worse than it needs to be.
The good news?
There's quite a lot you can do to improve your situation.
Long drives can strain your back and worsen existing problems. They sometimes lead to severe lower back pain, especially if you have bad posture or lack proper support in your car seat .
When you understand the issue and make small tweaks, you can find relief and finally deal with that back pain while driving.
Tips for Driving With Back Pain
Driving while experiencing pain can present a challenge. By making a few adjustments and following some tips, you can transform those uncomfortable journeys into pain-free adventures.
Let's explore some advice to keep your back in a good posture while on the road.
Optimise Your Seat Position
- Horizontal Seat Position: Make sure to adjust the seat so that your knees are slightly bent and your feet can comfortably reach the pedals. It's important to find a balance and avoid sitting too close to the steering wheel.
- Vertical Seat Position: Set the seat height in a manner that allows you to have a view of the road without straining your neck or slouching. Your hips should be level with or slightly higher than your knees.
Adjust Your Headrest Placement
Position the headrest at the level of the top of your head. This helps prevent whiplash injuries and provides support for your neck.
Relax Your Steering Wheel Grip
One way to alleviate strain on your neck and back is by adjusting the height of your steering wheel. The steering wheel should be at an appropriate distance from your arms so you don’t overstretch them.
This can help reduce tension, in the muscles of your neck, shoulders and during longer drives, consider holding the steering wheel at the 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock positions instead of the 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock positions.
This position reduces pressure on your back and neck, especially if you can comfortably rest your arms and elbows on the armrests while driving.
Maintain Correct Driving Posture
Sit with your shoulders straight and keep your back against the seat. Avoid slouching or leaning excessively to one side.
It's also helpful to engage your core muscles as if you were gently pulling your navel towards your spine to provide support for your lower back.
Add Cushions To Your Car Seat
- Seat Cushion: You may want to consider using a seat cushion that offers coccyx space and extra padding, for added comfort during drives.
- Lumbar Support: If your car seat doesn't provide lumbar support, you can use a specially designed lumbar pillow to fill in the gap in your lower spine region.
- Headrest Pillow: If your headrest is uncomfortable or lacks support, try to add some padding to your headrest with a memory foam car pillow.
Drive With Comfortable Footwear
It's important to wear shoes with support while driving. Avoid heels or shoes that cause discomfort, as they can affect your posture and contribute to pain.
Take Regular Breaks On The Road
Plan rest stops during drives, ideally every 1 to 2 hours. Take the opportunity to get out of the car, stretch your legs, and walk around to relieve tension in your muscles.
You can also perform stretches for your back, neck, and legs during these breaks – for example, stretching your arms overhead and gently leaning to each side.
Use Cruise Control (AKA Speed Limiters)
When driving on a highway, consider using cruise control or a speed limiter feature if available in your vehicle. This helps maintain a speed and reduces the need for leg movements that can aggravate back pain.
Hot & Cold Therapy On Journeys
If you're feeling muscle soreness or stiffness after a drive, try using a heating pad or warm towel on your back for around 15 to 20 minutes. The heat will help relax your muscles and provide some relief from the pain .
Heat rubs such as Deep Heat are also good for back pain. In case of pain or inflammation, you can apply an ice pack wrapped in a cloth to the area for about 15 to 20 minutes. This can help reduce any swelling you may be experiencing .
Take Painkillers When Necessary
Consider using over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen as advised by your healthcare provider.
However, it's important not to rely on these medications for long-term relief and instead, focus on addressing the root causes of your back pain . You can read more about painkillers for back pain here.
Take Another Driver Along To Share Driving
It might be beneficial to have a friend or family member accompany you on your drive so that you can take turns behind the wheel and give each other breaks. This way, you'll be able to reduce the strain on your back throughout the journey .
Causes of Back Pain While Driving
Experiencing back pain while driving can put a damper on your enjoyment of the road. Several factors might be contributing to your discomfort. In this section, we’ll learn more about these causes so you can gain an understanding of why your back bothers you when you're behind the wheel.
A herniated disc is a medical condition where the jelly-like soft center of a spinal disc protrudes through a crack in its harder outer layer. The protruded or misplaced part of the spinal cushion can exert pressure on nearby nerves, resulting in pain and discomfort .
Poor Posture at Work, in Cars, or While Walking
Your posture elsewhere in your life can also affect your time behind the wheel, especially if you've got back pain while driving.
Poor Posture Sitting at Desks
When you spend hours sitting at a desk it's crucial to maintain good posture with straight shoulders and back firmly placed against the backrest.
Poor desk posture can strain your back muscles, making it more likely for you to experience discomfort while driving .
Poor Posture While Driving
Slouching or adopting awkward positions behind the steering wheel can strain your spine and lead to aggravating discomfort .
Poor Posture While Walking or Standing
Poor posture while walking can contribute to back pain during driving. It's important to ensure alignment of your hips and shoulders throughout your activities.
Wallet & Other Things in Your Back Pocket
Sitting on a wallet or bulky items placed in your back pocket can create an imbalance in your pelvis, causing misalignment of your hip muscles and hence causing lower back discomfort .
Worn Out Suspension
If your car's suspension is worn out or not functioning properly, it can result in a jarring ride. The constant and uneven bumping and vibration may aggravate existing problems and lead to new sources of back pain.
Vehicle Not Appropriate for Bumpy Roads
If you're driving on bumpy roads, using a vehicle that's not suitable for such conditions can cause excessive jolts and adversely impact your spine's muscle and bone structure, leading to severe back pain at times .
Poor Overall Health and Fitness
If your overall health and fitness levels are not up to par, especially when combined with hours of driving, it can make your back more prone to pain .
Not getting exercise and leading a healthy lifestyle can weaken the core muscles that support your spine, making it more susceptible to strain and discomfort .
When To Seek Professional Help
When it comes to back pain while driving, it's important to recognise the red flags. A red flag is a warning sign of something more serious and I wrote an article on the red flags of back pain here.
Essentially, this means that your back is trying to communicate something to you. And you'd be wise to pay attention. Here's a summary of the red flags.
- Intense Pain: If your back pain does not improve even after attempting self-help methods and continues for more than a few days, or if the pain becomes severe and debilitating, seek medical attention .
- Pain That Radiates: If your back pain travels down your legs causing tingling sensations or numbness, this could be an indication of an issue, such as sciatica. Make sure you don't ignore this advice; it's important to consult a healthcare professional .
- Loss of Control, Bowel or Bladder: If you suddenly experience loss of control over your bowel or bladder along with pain, it could be a sign of a serious condition called cauda equina syndrome. In such cases, immediate medical attention is necessary.
- Injury or Trauma: If your back pain is the result of an injury or accident you recently experienced, it's crucial to have it examined by a doctor to rule out any fractures or other injuries .
- Symptoms of Fever or Infection: If you develop a fever, chills, or notice any signs of infection along with pain, it might indicate an underlying infection that requires medical evaluation.
- Existing Conditions: If you have a history of problems such as herniated discs or spinal stenosis and experience worsening pain while driving, consult your doctor for management.
Types of Doctor That Can Help
So, what type of doctor should you see if you do have any of the problems listed above? Here are some considerations when deciding.
Primary Care Doctor
Start by consulting your primary care doctor, or GP. They can assess your condition, provide treatment, and refer you to a specialist if necessary .
If you're experiencing pain that is related to your bones, joints, or muscles, it would be beneficial to consult with a specialist. They have the expertise to provide an assessment and treatment plan .
If your back pain is accompanied by symptoms such as radiating pain or numbness, consulting with a neurologist would be wise. They specialise in diagnosing and managing conditions such as sciatica .
A physical therapist can also be of help when it comes to alleviating pain and improving driving posture. They can create an exercise and stretching program tailored specifically for you .
The Bottom Line: A Doctor's Advice
Back pain while driving sucks.
The causes range from a simple muscle spasm to serious conditions of the spine, such as a herniated disc.
In my medical practice, most people with mild to moderate back pain have significant relief with supportive management. This includes proper posture, neck, back, and coccyx support, and taking regular breaks during long drives.
In my experience, if you stick to these supportive measures, you're less likely to need any pain relieving medication for your back pain, whether you're driving or otherwise.
So look out for the red flags and, if you don't have any of those, follow the tips above.
1. Healthline. 12 Tips to Relieve Back Pain When Driving. https://www.healthline.com/health/back-pain/lower-back-pain-when-driving
2. Everyday Health. 8 Tips to Manage Back Pain While Driving. https://www.everydayhealth.com/back-pain/back-pain-while-driving.aspx
3. Spine Health. https://www.spine-health.com/blog/7-tips-alleviate-back-pain-your-road-trips