Traveling With Back Pain: 9 Crucial Steps to Help Your Bad Back
April 5, 2019
Traveling with Back Pain is No Bueno! Let’s Alleviate Pain cuz Baby Got Back
As I sit here with a heating pad on my back and a fan on my face (because it’s 90 degrees outside), I’m eagerly anticipating my next big adventure while being equally terrified over the fact that I will be on the road for 3 months and I need my back to hold up. The reason that I have such a bad back at 28 is because —and let’s be clear this is my own self-diagnosis — backpacking around Europe for 2 months with a heavy backpack and a plethora of shopping bags did some irreparable damage. Now, my “heating pad/fan in the face” situation is a nightly routine. Last year, I threw my back out on a 2-week trip to Europe as the long flight, crossbody bag, and excessive walking ultimately took its toll. Traveling with back pain is killer and flying with a bad back even worse!
If you read the above paragraph about my trials and tribulations of traveling with a bad back and found it to be overwhelmingly negative, ’tis true. But, the point of all that back story (omg, these puns are going to be fun) is to say that this won’t stop me from traveling around Europe and I don’t want a bad back to stop you either. So as I research the best thing for back pain and lay out my game plan for my upcoming trip, I hope these tips help minimize your back pain so that you can travel comfortably and enjoy your vacation!
UPDATE: I did the 3-month Europe trip and well…I had to leave early because I threw my back out spelunking in Budapest and was on bedrest for a week. Note to self: caving for 3 hours when you have a herniated disc is not a good idea. But, I only found out about the herniated disc after coming home and getting an MRI so there you go…
1) Roll, Massage, Stretch Before You Leave
Before I even leave on my trip, I plan to take a few preliminary steps to help minimize pain. I will be rolling out my back and hip area on the daily for a couple weeks prior. I bought this roller last year after I threw my back out. I still haven’t quite gotten the hang out it to be honest…do I roll or does the roller roll? Did that make any sense? But regardless, it does seem to loosen things up back there. Ahhh these puns will just keep on coming! Pre-trip strategy #2: I have now had a total of 3 massages in my life and I really think a massage helps loosen up my back even if it ends up hurting a bit more after for a few days. Maybe it’s similar to how you break out after a facial? I am not one to splurge on anything fancy, but wow I stand corrected (!!) after having these last two massages. They are worth every penny! My posture is a lost cause — I will forever be a hunchback — but I do plan on stretching on a regular basis a week or so before I leave.
UPDATE: I started going to physical therapy after this past trip and was told to purchase the Mackenzie Lumbar Roll for long-haul flights. I have been using it in my car to break it in before my nonstop flight to Rome from LA and I am REALLY excited about this product!
2) Sit in an Aisle Seat on a Long-Haul Flight
I can’t believe these words are about to be published on the world wide web. I am a window seat kinda gal through and through because sleep is clearly > than leg space. However, this trip I am going to choose an aisle seat and forgo sleep because back pain after a flight is a thing. I’ve decided that I will sit on the aisle for any flight longer than 6 hours. Why? I can set a timer to stand up and walk around the cabin every couple of hours. In a window seat, I would royally infuriate the other people in my row. On a flight longer than 6 hours, you’ll probably be jet lagged anyway so at that point who even cares about sleep any more. I say that now… BTW, this is for my fellow economy peeps. If you’re rich or a really great travel hacker and have tons of miles and can get a flat bed in Business/First, do it. Obviously.
3) Bring a Travel Pillow
I always bring a travel pillow that can serve as both a head rest and an airplane back pillow. This pillow clips on to the bottom of my backpack so it doesn’t add extra bulk to a carryon bag. This pillow also came in handy on trains or at a budget accommodation where the pillow presentation leaves something to be desired. Recently, I have been putting said pillow behind me as back support for airplane seats and it has helped immensely. I have also read that a golf ball does the trick…this may be a bit odd but it’s small enough where it wouldn’t be too much of an inconvenience to pack in your carry on. Below are the highest rated travel pillows plus an air cushion for back pain. I only included one self-inflatable option because blowing up anything inflatable is actually near impossible half the time.
|Coccyx Orthopedic Memory Foam Seat Cushion||17.6 x 3.1 x 13.2 inches; 2.09 pounds||Read Reviews on Amazon Here|
|100% Orthopedic Memory Foam Pillow||16.5 x 4 x 8.3 inches||Read Reviews on Amazon Here|
|Therm-a-Rest Lumbar Travel Pillow||16 x 7 x 2.4 inches ; 4.2 ounces||Read Reviews on Amazon Here|
|JML 3 in 1 Travel Pillow||6 x 12.6 x 6 inches; 10.6 ounces||Read Reviews on Amazon Here|
4) Pack a Heating Pad
The best part of a heating pad? It lies flat! AKA incredibly easy to pack in your suitcase. That way, I can nurse my back…back (lol) to health nightly. I always laugh when someone recommends bringing a roller on a trip because as great as it might be when you’re home, a roller is not a travel friendly item! Unless you are on a road trip, I don’t know how you could possibly finagle that into a suitcase.
UPDATE: If you are traveling internationally, a heating pad that you purchased in the USA is not the answer. The first night arriving in Greece, I plugged my heating pad in to my universal adapter and wham, the fuse short circuited and the entire apartment lost power and AIR CONDITIONING. I ended up purchasing a European heating pad from a local pharmacy. It wasn’t easy to get, but after going to a few different places, I was able to have a pharmacy order one for me and have it delivered in two hours for 21 euros.
5) Wear a Backpack not a Crossbody Bag
This is another first for me. I have been all about the crossbody since day ONE. I started my international travels studying abroad in Barcelona which is otherwise known as the pickpocketing capital of the world (I gave it this title, there is nothing formal about this) and the crossbody did me so so good. I talk all about the crossbody and how to wear it in my “10 Helpful Tips to Avoid Getting Pickpocketed” post. Sadly, on my last Europe trip, the pressure of the bag on my lower back became too much to handle. I had to switch to wearing just a money belt underneath my clothes because my back could not withstand the pressure. That is why I plan on bringing an anti-theft daypack with me this time around. This way, the pressure will be evenly displaced on both sides of my body and up higher on my back. I am a bit concerned about pickpocketing because backpacks generally are ill-advised; you have less control of what is physically behind you. However, if I am in a tight space, I will wear it on my front, bring minimal valuables with me if I am out for the day, or wear a money belt underneath my shirt if I am traveling to a new destination with all of my belongings. Hopefully the whole anti-theft thing will actually do what it says, but of course we need to be vigilant and constantly aware of our surroundings as well! Included in this list are some of the best anti-theft daypacks and backpacks for men and women.
|Travelon Anti Theft Classic Backpack||11 x 7 x 3 inches||Read Reviews on Amazon Here|
|Pacsafe Metrosafe LS350 Anti-Theft 15L Backpack||5 x 11.6 x 16.5 inches; 1.5 pounds||Read Reviews on Amazon Here|
|Travelon Anti-Theft Signature Slim Backpack||11 x 13 x 2 inches; 1.2 pounds||Read Reviews on Amazon Here|
|Kopack Anti Theft Travel Backpack||18.9 x 5.5 x 14.2 inches; 1.94 pounds||Read Reviews on Amazon Here|
6) Buy Portable Ice Heat Patches or Ice Packs
I’ve read that ice is best for actual back injuries and heat for chronic muscle pain; consequently, in the first 24-72 hours after a back injury, it is supposedly much better to use ice. Alternating between applications of ice and heat is also supposed to be quite effective. I want to have both options readily available so I plan on bringing an ice option along with. If you are staying at an apartment with a kitchen and a freezer, then a portable ice pack may be your best bet. However, if you don’t have access to a freezer, there are Icy Hot Patches that you can use instead for pain relief.
7) Electronic Pulse Massager?
There is this FDA cleared HealthmateForever contraption on Amazon that has amazing reviews. This product “relieves pain by sending small electrical impulses through electrodes placed on the skin to underlying nerve fibers.” Full disclosure: I currently know nothing about this device, I am extremely tempted to purchase one. However, I am going to talk to my doctor first and keep you posted. It’s an electronic pulse massager that helps with a variety of issues. I have heard people rave about these things, so as long as I get the go ahead from someone I trust, I will be buying this asap. The item weight is 14.4 ounces for those concerned about weight in your suitcase.
8) Take an Anti-Inflammatory
Advil is an anti-inflammatory, so it will not only relieve your pain temporarily, but should also help minimize swelling for the future. I am not a doctor, so I am not here to recommend anything stronger, but if you have a bad back injury and you get the go ahead, more power to you.
9) Switch Up Your Shoes
Wearing the same shoes day in and day out seem to make the balls of my feet and lower back ache more than if I change up my shoes every day or so. I usually bring a pair of supportive sneakers and sandals, so as long as I wear the sandals on a day with minimal walking, it feels really great to switch off shoes every day or so.
Traveling with back pain can be the ultimate buzz kill! Hopefully these tips for flying with a bad back and traveling with back pain will help mitigate some of that discomfort throughout the duration of your trip. As always, please feel free to contribute your suggestions on how to help a bad back when traveling in the comments below! Don’t back out now! 🙂
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*Please consult with your doctor for best treatment when traveling with back pain. I am not a doctor and am merely providing the tips I plan on utilizing on my upcoming travels.
** “Traveling With Back Pain: 9 Crucial Steps to Help Your Bad Back” contains affiliate links. That means I receive a small commission if you make a purchase after clicking the link.*
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Exercise works for me. And no joke – deadlifts seem to help the most
Great way to strengthen those lower back muscles!
Hey this is an amazing article, thanks so much for writing it! I have chronic lower back pain and also love to travel, so much that I started my own hotel bed comparison site, where travelers can rate the hotel beds they sleep in along with firmness and mattress type so that fellow travellers can pick the one that suits them the best.
I love that I do so many of the things in this post like getting an aisle seat (I also find an exit or bulkhead seat is much kinder on my legs, I’m 6’4″), using a small lumbar roll, using a bcakpack as a day bag and taking anti-inflams before going. But now I’ll also try a ice/heat pack, switching up my shoes and doing the roll/stretch before going. Did you end up trying a pulse massager? i’d love to know how that went.
Take care, Matt Gaiter, Rate Hotel Beds.