How to fly with back pain problems

Paul is worried about taking a long-haul flight with his bad back and wants to know if there are any tips to help alleviate his discomfort.


Q. Paul
I have struggled with lower back for many years, ever since I suffered a workplace accident when I was in my 30s. I have found it impossible to sit comfortably on flights and often have trouble walking after long-haul flights. I have tried a few things over the years, but nothing seems to alleviate the problem. I’m hoping to head to the UK this year, but I’m not looking forward to the long flight. Are there any tips for alleviating back pain while flying?

A. Travelling with back pain or any other joint, bone or muscle condition can cause considerable anxiety and stress, especially when all you want to do is enjoy your trip.

Pain Australia offers some good advice for travellers who have to travel with painful conditions.

Plan your trip
Living in Australia, we know long distances are a part of life, whether travelling overseas or just within Australia. When you book your flight, think about a schedule that will be the least stressful. Try and pick a flight time when there will be fewer people on board to increase your chances of being able to stretch out. Consider breaking long-haul flights up by spending a day or two in your stopover destinations. If you tend to have more pain in the morning try to avoid travelling then. It is not always possible, but it is something to keep in mind when booking.

Request an aisle seat
This will make it much easier to take regular strolls up and down the aisles. You will also be able to perform leg and foot stretches and other gentle exercises from your seat.

Inform the airline
When booking your flights, let the airline know you have a medical condition. With advance notice, they should be able to:

  • provide you with wheelchair assistance and early boarding, if necessary
  • have airline staff carry your luggage for you and/or lift it into the overhead bin for you
  • accommodate you with special shuttles and elevator platforms for boarding

Pain medication
Take any pain medication you use regularly one hour before your flight to give it time to get into your system before take-off. Carry all of your pain medications in a clear plastic bag on your carry-on luggage in case you need them during the flight. Don’t place your medications in with your checked luggage. The baggage compartment gets extremely cold while the plane is in flight and your medication may freeze and be ruined.

Watch your posture
If you cannot afford to fly first or business class you will be a bit cramped at some point during the flight. Keep your legs positioned at right angles when you sit with your feet flat on the ground and your knees about the same height as your hips. This will keep some of the stress off your lower back. If necessary, you can ask for pillows or blankets to sit on or prop up your feet.

Move around during the flight
I will assume that you regularly get up and move during flights to try and alleviate your pain, but you may also be able to find some room towards the back of the plane where you can do some quick stretching to ease stiffness and provide more flexibility to your back.

Support yourself
Providing support behind your lower back with a back roll or even a couple of pillows is a good way to prevent slouching and keep your spine straight.

Do you have any tips to alleviate back pain when you fly?

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