I do love a good summer trip – the longer the better. Unfortunately, all fun comes with a cost. One of the costs of summer trips is back, shoulder, and neck pain. Here are some tips on minimizing the pain associated with summer travel.
If you are like me, and seem to lack the ability to travel lightly (I’ve been called Inspector Gadget by travel buddies…guilty!), consider good quality rolling luggage. As a matter of fact, even if you are good at traveling minimally, my advice is still the same. A good carry-on bag with wheels will save you a lot of shoulder and neck pain while you are walking through airports and hotel lobbies.
If you are headed to a less paved area, consider a rolling bag that also converts into a backpack. Victorinox makes a rugged bag that converts quickly into a full sized backpack and is very comfortable to wear. They aren’t cheap, but they are worth it. I bought one in 2004 when I went to Mexico and it has served me well for over 10 years. I can roll it through paved areas, but when I hit the rough terrain I pull out the straps, cover the wheels and wear it comfortably. If you go this route, be sure you get one with good padding on the straps and definitely get one with wide padded hip supports/straps so that the weight of the bag sits on your hip bones. That’s a much more comfortable carry than something that is supported by your shoulders alone.
Driving and sitting pain
If your vacation plans include long stretches of sitting in the car, on planes, or on trains, you need some strategies for dealing with long periods of inactivity. Here are some suggestions that are easy to implement.
Get as comfortable as possible as quickly as possible.
Use a lumbar pillow at your lower back (if your vehicle doesn’t have an adjustable lumbar support). If you don’t have a lumbar pillow try a small towel rolled or folded to support the natural curve in your lower back. One of my favorite cheap and easy to carry lower back supports is a small blow-up pillow designed for use in the bath. They are also “tweakable” so you get just the right amount of support but not too much. Supporting your lumbar curve is critical to keeping your back pain-free.
Don’t sit on your wallet!
If you keep stuff in your back pocket (wallet, cell phone, can of snuff, whatever) you are lifting the hip on one side more than the other, creating an imbalance between the left and right sides. Whatever item is in your back pocket can also compress the nerves and blood vessels that flow through your hips and gluteal muscles. Even a relatively small item like a business card holder can cause discomfort over the course of a couple of hours.
Sure everyone knows that, but it’s something most of us ignore. Maybe you think you look silly stretching in an airport or at a rest stop. Maybe you think a bunch of stretches take up too much time. I’m going to suggest a stretch for hip, lower back, and leg pain that’s easy to do, is fairly discrete, and is very effective. It’s called a single standing hamstring stretch.
Here’s how you do it.
- Stand upright and place one heel on an elevated surface.
This could be the bumper of your car, the seat in an airport terminal, the edge of your carry-on bag, or the edge of the toilet in the bathroom.
- Place your hands on your hips, keep your head up and make sure your back is straight.
- Bend from your hips toward your raised foot until you feel a deep warm stretch down the back of your leg. (If you feel pain, you went too far. Back it off until the pain goes away.)
- Breathe long, slow, and steady for 12 inhales and exhales.
- Put your foot back on the ground, put the other foot up and repeat.
We’ve probably all read about deep vein thrombosis being a danger on long air trips. Get up out of your airline seat and move around once per hour. Go to the bathroom, take a silly selfie, stretch. Just move.
If you are traveling by car, the same thing applies but with less danger of thrombosis. Walk around for 10 minutes every 1-2 hours. Stop by the side of the road, see the world’s largest ball of twine, stop at a swimming hole, toss a baseball with your kids. And do those stretches above. Your lower back will thank you!
Change how your grip the steering wheel.
Most of us were taught to grip the steering wheel of a car at either the 10 and 2 o’clock positions or the 9 and 3 o’clock positions. This gets very tiring on long drives, compressing the nerves and blood vessels at the front of your shoulders and pulling on the muscles at the tops of your shoulders and upper back. It also curves your upper body into a clamshell shape which pulls the natural forward curve out of your lower back. This results in discomfort in the shoulders, neck, hands, and lower back.
To fix this, shift your grip at least half of the time to about the 4 and 6 o’clock positions on the steering wheel. This drops your shoulders and lets your back rest in a more upright and neutral position, putting the crucial forward curve back into your lumbar area and taking the too-deep curve out of your upper back.
Pack some topicals.
Finally, pack some topical relief into your luggage. I am partial to a topical cream called Sombra (I sell it if you want to try it out). It doesn’t make you smell medicinal, isn’t greasy, won’t stain your clothes, won’t make your skin feel like it’s burning off, and is very effective at relieving muscular pain. Also, a little bit of it goes a very long way. Apply your favorite topical as needed during your trip. You might also find that Tiger Balm or Salon Pas patches, both of which you can get at Walgreen’s and CVS, are also helpful for lower back and shoulder pain. You apply these and they stick in place until you peel them off.
Now go out and play. And call me when you get back into town if you need some stronger relief!