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How to Prevent and Correct Back Pain From Driving

Back pain and long road trips too often go hand-in-hand. Here's how to put a halt to the hurt

It’s hard to choose what’s most painful about long road trips with the family. The destination may be glorious, but the road is full of rough roads, from whining to fights over the road trip playlist to the ceaseless bathroom breaks. But nothing is more painful, quite literally, than the back pain one gets from driving. Driving hurts. What can you do?

Plenty, it turns out. You just need to acknowledge the root cause of the pain, and stretch right, and often.

“The back pain you experience from a long time spent in the car is due to the pressure on the discs in your back,” says James Wyss, M.D., a sports physiatrist and co-director of the Athletes Spine Program at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. “These discs act as a shock absorber between the vertebrae.” When you are in a sitting position, Dr. Wyss explains, the forces go from your ischial tuberosity, or so-called “sit bones” at the base of your pelvis, up through your spine and have a compressive or loading effect on your back.

Unlike stretching out your calves or hamstrings before a run, however, you can’t pre-emptively stretch your way out of back pain from long car rides. “There is no one group of stretches you can do before you sit for a while that will ward off the problem,” says Dr. Wyss. Rather, your best long-term bet is to regularly do exercises that strengthen your spine, which will help it better handle sitting pressures.

Still, when you’re cruising south on I-95 and your back starts acting up, you want something here and now to make your situation more comfortable. These are a few tricks to try to prevent back pain from driving:

Check Your Seating Position. “You can have more or less load on the discs in your back depending on how you sit,” says Dr. Wyss. “If you are leaning forward, you greatly increase pressure compared to leaning back and using the back rest.” If you’re one of those people who hunch over the wheel as you drive or bend forward to read the navi screen, try reclining your seat as far as you can to decrease the pressure.

Make Timed Stops. Simply standing up will take pressure off your back, so schedule a few stops on your family road trip. (You can make it a full-service deal with gas, potty trips, and snacks.) Set the alarm on your phone and every hour, pull over at a rest stop and get out for a moment. “The most helpful thing you can do for back pain is just walk around,” says Dr. Wyss. “You are taking body out of a flexed position by walking, which lessens the load on your discs.”

Stretch It Out. While stretching before driving won’t solve your back issues, stretching during the trip can help—especially stretches that counter this flexed position. “If the discs are under pressure, muscles tighten up around it, causing that feeling of tightness,” says Dr. Wyss. “So I generally advise doing movements that bring spine into extension.” You’re probably thinking that means the old bend-forward-and-touch-your-toes maneuver, but nope: That actually increases pressure on your spine. Instead, try the two quickie poses below for back pain relief.

The Two Best Stretches to Fix Back Pain from Driving

  1. Shallow backbend: The goal with this stretch is to bring your spine into extension, says Dr. Wyss. Start by standing with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart. Put your hands on your hips and lean back slightly, raising your head and chest toward the sky and dropping your shoulders back a little. “You don’t need to do gymnastics here,” he says. “Just feel the stretch.” Do five to 10 of these.
  2. Brugger’s relief position: Named after a 20th-century neurologist, this position aims to counter the effects of back pain from sitting. Start by finding a bench and sitting at the very edge, weight on your sit bones. Spread your legs wide and turn out your knees and feet slightly. Sit forward so that your weight is over your knees and feet. Raise your chest toward the sky and arch your lower back. With your arms by your sides, turn your hands so palms face outward. Lift your head up high. Hold for 10 seconds as you breathe in and out. Repeat five times.