Physio: Hitting the road for extended trips hits back–in the back

Road trips are great. Unfortunately, sitting in a car for hours at a time is not an ideal situation.

It’s that time of the year again; the golf courses are open, the snowbirds are returning and a few brave souls, who obviously feel no pain and have no fear, are swimming in the lake.

Living in the Okanagan we have access to many great activities—lakes, mountains, golfing, biking and wineries.

Despite what we have at home, there is something about the thrill of a road trip that entices us to venture out of the valley. Camping in the Rockies, fishing trips up north, family visits to the coast; road trips are exciting and adventurous. Unfortunately, sitting in a car for hours at a time is not an ideal situation as we may develop pain in our backs and necks and ruin the activities which we set out to do in the first place.

All of us are familiar with the stiffness we feel after a road trip. Our bodies have been stuck in a seated position, during which our lower backs, shoulder blades and upper back tend to round forward, placing our necks in an extended position.

When these positions are maintained for long periods of time a phenomenon known as creep occurs.

Because of the unique properties of our tissues, the longer we apply a stretch, the more our muscles and ligaments elongate and the more distribution of water occurs in our spinal discs (Kisner 2007).

If the stretch is held for a long time, the tissues can become permanently lengthened, which may place more stress on our joints.

Even if the tissues are only temporarily stretched, when we go to use them again, they are now at a greater risk of being injured. Both of these situations can lead to aches and pains in our back and neck.

If you want to avoid the typical road trip ailments, try a few of these tips.

Sit upright

Take the family car that has the best seats. Ideally you want to sit with your knees and hips at 90 degree angles. Cars that have seats, which are more upright: vans, trucks and jeeps, are more likely to keep our backs in a neutral position and our hips at 90 degrees.

Cushion lower back

If you do not have the option of driving one of these cars make sure the back of your seat is in an upright position and try rolling a towel, small pillow or even a sweater to fit into the curve of your lower back. This will naturally keep your back in a neutral position, preventing creep and fatigue of your back muscles.

Don’t reach

To take care of your upper body, adjust your seat so that it is close to the steering wheel. Now you are not reaching forward with your arms and rounding your mid back and shoulder blades.

Stop frequently

Finally, thank the woman in your life who needs to stop every half hour to use the washroom. Frequent stretching breaks can help prevent the tissues from stretching to the point of permanent damage. When you get out of the car, straighten your back slowly. Lifting up too quickly can cause pain from the pressure placed on the part of the discs that have now have more fluid in them.

Useful stretches

Standing by the side of your car, try some quick stretching exercises:

1. gently lean your upper body backwards

2. turn your upper body from side to side keeping your feet planted on the ground

3. squat down to the ground and back up and

4. stretch your hips side to side.

For your upper body, stretch the chest muscles by opening your arms and pulling them behind your body, turn your head from side to side, stretch your ears to your shoulders and lastly do a few jumping jacks to get all your muscles pumping and your circulation moving again.

Now that you are prepared to survive the road trip get those coolers packed, tunes blasting and hit the road, Jack, without hurting your back.

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