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How to prevent neck and back pain when traveling

Make these small adjustments to avoid pain and injuries while traveling this summer.
by Brianna Steinhilber /  / Updated 
Image: Smiling friends talking and riding in car
Making a pit-stop once an hour to get out and stretch helps to counteract the effects of sitting with poor posture in the car.Sam Edwards / Caiaimage/Getty Images
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It’s that time of year where you load up the car and road trip it to your favorite beach town or pack that carry-on and jet-set to a beautiful locale for a relaxing summer break.

We know that putting up that out of office reply and taking a much needed vacation is good for our health. And also, our career. What isn’t so healthy? The hours spent sitting, cramped in the passenger seat or the economy cabin trying to get to your destination.

The major risk that comes with sitting for prolonged periods of time — whether it's in a car or on a plane — is stiffness in joints and muscles and stagnation of fluids,” says Dr. Karena Wu, celebrity physical therapist and owner of ActiveCare Physical Therapy in NYC and Mumbai. “Stationary positions like sitting can lead to pooling of fluids in the lower extremities which can lead to swelling and even potential clotting of blood (deep vein thrombosis). Stiffness can be due to the positioning of the joints into a shortened position and the reduced motion which means your fluid in your joint can be more viscous when you first move.”

You may not be able to avoid that long flight or hours in the car, but you can make some adjustments to the way you’re sitting — and have some exercises on hand that will help reduce the impact on your body.

A better stand in the airport security line

According to a survey conducted by AAA, 88 million Americans plan to take family vacations this year, and of those, 35 percent plan to visit an international destination — which likely means a long flight is in their future. When it comes to flying, the hazards start when you arrive at the airport and get in the security line. Wu recommends making a few adjustments while you wait to get through security. First and foremost, put down those heavy bags. When you do pick them up to move in line, turn it into an exercise session (while also protecting your back) with these moves:

  • While holding bags, correct your posture, pull your abdominals in and stand equally on both feet, contracting the quads. “I see people standing with their backpack or purse/tote on one shoulder, and their hip jutting out to the side as they bear all of that weight on one side of the body. It's not great for the low back or the shoulder girdle because you are compressing one side of the body,” says Wu. “People also slouch as they wait. So stand upright and use your own musculature to hold yourself erect.”
  • When the line moves, turn it into a squat to lift the weight, or a straight leg move to slide your items forward and exercise the hip musculature. “Your future is prolonged sitting so why not work out your muscles before you are stuck in your airplane seat?” says Wu.
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What to do on the plane

Once you board your flight, the main concern becomes stiffness in the joints from being in the seated position for an extended period of time, says Wu. “Sometimes you can get neck and low back pain from when people fall asleep with their head in a severely bent position (forward or sideways) or when they continuously cross their legs and lean on an armrest,” she says. “It torques the back and bends it where you compress one side and overstretch the other.”

The best thing to do is move. “Movement helps with circulation,” says Wu. “It forces you to contract and relax your muscles so that any fluids do not get stagnant and gives you a little exercise at the same time.”

  • Perform in-seat exercises. “Exercises like ankle circles/pumps, knee extension (straightening the knees), glute squeezes (squeezing your butt cheeks together) can help pump the muscles and give them a little workout at the same time,” says Wu. “If you hold them for at least 10 seconds, you'll really get the mini-workout component.”
  • Get up and walk around the plane. “Sitting for prolonged periods is not great for the back. [Walking around] allows you to move and get a stretch in the legs in the aisle,” says Wu. “You can stretch the quads by bending the foot back to the butt and the calves; stand 1-foot in front of the other to feel the stretch in the back of the lower leg while you are waiting for the bathroom.” She suggests once an hour as a good time frame to get up to stretch your legs (without irritating your fellow passengers).
  • Do upper body stretches in your seat. “For triceps, bring the arm overhead, bend the elbow and then pull the elbow to the side; for the back of the shoulder, bring the arm across the body and pull it across further with the other arm; and for the abdominals, reach both arms straight overhead and stretch up and back” says Wu. “Any sort of movement is better than none, so these are easy to do without infringing on your plane mate's space.”

What to do on a long road trip

You will run into similar problems when sitting in the car for a long trip — in addition to stiffness in joints and the potential to fall asleep in an awkward neck position, where you put your feet can also pose issues. “In cars, there is a little more space so sometimes people sit on their feet or put their feet up which rounds the lower back,” says Wu. “That can cause disc-related pain as the flexed position is not healthy for the spine.”

  • Do not sit with your legs tucked under you or up on the seat. “This squishes the soft tissue in the knee/hip area and shortens the muscle,” says Wu. “When you unfold, you will feel very stiff from positioning that way for a long period of time. It can also compress the blood vessels and nerves so that you get pins/needles/tingling that is uncomfortable.”
  • Get out and move around every hour. “Just like with sitting at a computer, it is recommended to stop and get out of the car every hour,” says Wu.”You can do 10 backward bends by placing the hands on the hips and moving the head and shoulders backward behind the pelvis to counteract the poor sitting posture.”
  • Use cruise control. This frees you up to “do some toe curls/splay stretching, ankle pumps/circles, glute squeezes, and abdominal bracing all when sitting, however use caution as attention should be paid on driving and not the exercises,” says Wu.
  • Do isometric holds. Nearly everyone sits with poor posture, says Wu, so pay careful attention to keeping the body into a good upright position. “Isometric holds (static contraction with long hold times) allow for people to pump the muscles to make them work without needing much space,” says Wu. “It brings energy into an area that is otherwise dormant from prolonged posturing. It also kills time during your travel!”

If you change just ONE thing — Uncross your legs

“Stop crossing your legs,” Wu urges travelers. “It torques the spine, cuts off blood flow to the legs and facilitates muscle imbalances. It also leads to a rounded lower back as people have a tendency to slouch down when they cross their legs."

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