Flying with chronic low back pain?
There are steps you can take both before and during your flight to better manage your back pain.
Let’s get started with some things you can do prior to your flight.
1. Ask your doctor to help.
Your doctor is one of your best advocates when preparing for a vacation.
- Ask your doctor to write a letter to your airline and flight crew. While airlines have been criticized lately for poor customer service, your medical letter may be just what it takes to persuade the crew to allow special accommodations. One of our forum members presented a medical letter and was upgraded to business class, allowed to lie on the floor and rest during long flights, given extra blankets and cushions, and was allowed to walk around as often as he needed.
- Ask your doctor if they can provide you with extra prescription drugs like narcotics or muscle relaxants to help make the plain ride easier on your lower back.
2. Contact the airline.
Weeks before your trip, call the airline to inform them you have a medical condition. With advance notice, they should be able to :
- Provide you with medical attention (if necessary) via wheelchair assistance and early boarding.
- Have airline personnel carry your luggage and/or lift it into the overhead bin for you.
- Accommodate you with special shuttles and elevator platforms for boarding.
- Give you tips for traveling (and getting through security) with your transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) unit.
- Allow non-medical assistants to accompany you through security and boarding.
3. Strategically schedule your flight.
When you book your flight, think about the type of schedule that will be the least stressful.
- Consider taking a flight when there will be fewer people on board and more room for you to lie down across seats.
- Contact the airline prior to scheduling a flight and let them know of your back pain. They may be able to provide you with more insight on when flights tend to be very crowded and much lighter.
- Try to limit the downtime between in-flight connections or layovers, if applicable.
- Don't schedule a flight that will require you to wake up extremely early.
Now that you’ve done some work prior to your flight, here’s what you can do to curtail back pain during your journey.
4. Bring over-the-counter pain medication.
- Take your pain medication one hour before your flight to give it time to get into your system.
- Carry your pain medications together in a clear plastic bag and have them on you at all times, in case you need them during the flight.
- Inform flight attendants that you are on medication. This way they can monitor you if necessary.
5. Provide support to your back during the flight.
For lower back pain, providing support behind your lower back, often with a back roll or even a couple of pillows (which a flight attendant should be more than willing to give you), is a good way to prevent slouching that may lead to back pain and to keep your spine straight.
- One forum member talked about how he brings a neck pillow on board to help with his neck pain.
- Back braces, tube-shaped pillows with microfibers inside, and other materials providing support are common companions of passengers with back pain and can be purchased inexpensively at many stores.
6. Watch your posture.
Airplane rides can be a bit tight and uncomfortable at times, especially if you’re not in first-class or business class.
- If your legs are not positioned at a right angle when you sit in an airplane seat, ask for something (pillows, blankets) to prop up your feet and keep your knees at a right angle. Doing so keeps stress off the lower back.
- If you have long legs, request an exit row or bulkhead seat, which generally has more legroom.
7. Move around during the flight.
Staying stationary for prolonged periods of time stresses the spine and can make back pain much worse.
See if there is room at the back of the plane to do some quick stretching, which can provide more flexibility to the back and ease stiffness. Just be sure not to get up during turbulence.
8. Alternate between heat and ice.
Alternate every 15 minutes between heat therapy, which can stretch the tissues around the spine and reduce the sending of pain signals, and ice treatment, which can numb back swelling. Here’s what you can do:
- Stock up on inexpensive heating options like ThermaCare heat wraps or warm gel packs and applies them while in the air.
- Bring an empty hot water bottle and ask the flight attendant to fill it up during your flight.
- Carry a small gel pack on the plane and have the flight attendant store it in the fridge when you are not using it.
- Have a Ziploc bag on hand and ask the attendant to fill it up with ice that you can apply to your back.
Of course, do not apply heat or ice directly to the skin and be sure to check in with the airline to see what items are acceptable to carry on.
9. Relax and try to get some rest.
A long flight provides plenty of time to relax. Try:
- Getting comfortable via a back or neck support, sitting properly or reclining your seat, and maybe even taking some pain medication prior to your flight.
- Breathing slowly (inhale deeply, count to five, exhale slowly, and repeat 10 times) to relax your muscles and nerves.
- Listening to some soothing music on an iPod.
- Bringing a novel or some other reading materials that can stimulate your mind and divert your attention away from your back pain.
- Staring out at the clouds and scenery (if you have a window seat) and letting your mind drift.
- Thinking about your vacation destination and how long you’ve waited for this day.
Hopefully, these tips will help, and maybe even spark some more ideas of your own as you prepare to deal with your back pain on a vacation plane ride. What helps you arrive pain-free?
Precision Pain Care and Rehabilitation has two convenient locations in the Richmond Hill – Queens and New Hyde Park – Long Island. Call the Richmond Hill office at (718) 215-1888, or (516) 419-4480 for Long Island office, to arrange an appointment with our Interventional Pain Management Specialist, Dr. Jeffrey Chacko.