People who deal with a long commute each day often struggle with their comfort in the car. Whether pre-existing back pain makes driving painful from the start or you begin to see symptoms after increasing your drive time per day, there are ways to reduce and even eliminate back pain from your commute.
Why Driving Causes Back Pain
Although most people don’t need research to tell them that driving can cause back pain, those who don’t experience it themselves may need proof. Here’s why driving is to blame for back pain, and how to recognize the risk factors.
Common factors that lead to back pain while driving include improper ergonomics and poor posture. Ergonomics refers to the efficiency and safety of your movements, meaning that if you’re straining to see over the dashboard, you aren’t using your body correctly or effectively.
Consider the way that you sit in the car and whether you regularly strain to reach controls or your belongings. You may also be straining your right arm if you drive a manual transmission vehicle, as shifting requires movement from one arm but not the other.
Similarly, using the clutch, brake, or gas pedals improperly can also lead to strain. After all, your legs and arms connect to your spine, meaning that damage in a limb can impact pain in your back.
Depending on the vehicle, you may have little choice over how near the controls are or whether you must flex your muscles to stay properly seated and aligned. Attempts at adapting to the vehicle’s constraints can lead to muscle strain or another injury, especially if you are fighting against the car every time you drive.
Drivers with poor posture are also more likely to experience back pain after driving than those with correct posture. Slumping over or hunching to see through the windshield are indicators that your posture needs improvement.
Biomechanics and Back Pain
According to the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, the biomechanics of vibration is one contributing factor in drivers’ back pain.
Sitting in a vehicle that vibrates serves to increase internal pressure on the back, enhances flexibility while decreasing its resistance to pressure, and applies stress to the discs. The Journal suggests minimizing the amount of vibration that reaches the driver, which may or may not be a valid strategy for most drivers.
How to Eliminate Back Pain from Driving
Because there is a correlation between hours driven and back pain experienced, according to at least one study from the Scientific Electronic Library Online, minimizing pain may prove difficult when you must keep driving daily. However, these tips may reduce or eliminate back pain with regular use.
1. Maintain Proper Posture
Although it’s difficult to resolve bad posture on its own, part of improving overall posture is sitting correctly both in the car and out. When driving, sit up straight without hunching your back. Be sure that you sit in the center of your seat and align your body accordingly.
When reaching for controls or levers, aim to keep your spine straight and avoid jerky movements. Rely on your core muscles to hold your body upright, rather than holding your entire body stiff.
Choose a posture corrector if you find it difficult to hold your posture without outside pressure, and you may adjust over time to sitting up straight with comfort. Posture correctors help support your spine and pull your back into better alignment. They’re a quick-fix option that can help improve your posture immediately, although long-term results vary based on how well you keep up with using them.
At the same time, you can begin improving posture through core strengthening exercises. While you may find it difficult to perform such exercises amid back pain, a strong core is critical for posture, and it can help alleviate future pain.
In general, unless you have lasting pain from surgery or severe trauma, exercise is the ideal way to help your body defend itself against the strain. Especially if you lead a mostly sedentary lifestyle, back pain can continue to worsen the longer you avoid physical activity.
Start small with gentle stretches, and work your way up to leg lifts, crunches, plank poses, and other exercises to build muscle in your core abdominal muscle groups. Often, yoga or Pilates serves to stretch the muscles responsible for supporting your back, while weightlifting even mildly can improve muscle tone and avoid future injury.
2. Adjust the Vehicle Seat
Depending on your height and build, along with the vehicle’s size and accessories, it may be impossible to find the perfect vehicle seat fit. However, most vehicles allow for seat adjustments with multiple angles of recline. Many newer cars also have seat height adjustments, which can help you avoid neck strain if you struggle to see over the dashboard.
If you are too short to reach the vehicle’s pedals comfortably, consider a pedal extender so that you can avoid straining to apply pressure to the gas or brake. Similarly, bring along a seat pad or rolled towel to fill any gap between your lower back and the seat back.
3. Stretch Before, During, and After
Because driving requires you to sit, many of the back pain causing dangers in vehicles are also present on your couch or at your desk. That said, many of the same stretches can help alleviate pain whether you’re sitting in the car, at the office, or at home.
Before you get into your vehicle, stretch to loosen up your muscles and encourage blood flow. In general, stretches like reaching down to touch your toes, shrugging your shoulders, and rolling your neck from side to side can help loosen things up.
Gentle neck stretches, using your hand as leverage, can help take the crick out of your neck and relieve upper back pain. You can perform mild neck stretches while stopped in your vehicle, but other more involved stretches will have to wait until you arrive.
Once you stop, or when you take a break while on a long commute or road trip, stretching in toe touches, shrugging your shoulders, and leaning into a doorway with your hands on either side of the doorframe can help relieve tight muscles.
The American Journal of Industrial Medicine suggests that drivers walk around for a few minutes after driving, before sitting down or performing any lifting or other work.
Regardless of your job duties or where you’re heading in the vehicle, taking a few minutes to stretch and walk once you arrive at your destination can help relieve pressure and stress and help you avoid back pain.
4. Apply Aftercare
Just like back pain after a workout, back pain from driving may require the application of heat or ice. If you expect extreme back pain while driving, whether due to injury or previous discomfort in the car, consider bringing along a heat or cold pack to use on the journey.
After your car trip, or at the end of your day, gently stretch the affected areas. Then, apply ice to relieve pain. In most cases, you should not apply heat to a recent injury. However, with back pain, there may not be a present injury due to trauma, so you can typically put on whatever feels best to the area where you experience pain.
Fortunately for most commuters, back pain from driving is short-lived with the application of appropriate pain-relief methods. Between improving your posture and reducing pain, you stand to enjoy a more comfortable commute almost immediately.