The moment I bent down to unpack my suitcase, I felt the toll the three-hour car ride had taken on my body with a sharp, kind of tingly crunch in my lower back.
It’s summer, which means, if you’re like me, you’re spending many a weekend taking hours-long drives to visit friends, be in nature, and explore your corner of the world. Yep, it’s road-trip season, which is great news for your sense of adventure—and potentially bad news for your back.
What happens to your low back during a road trip
“Any time you are seated for a long period of time, things may begin to feel tight and sore,” Brad Baker, DPT, a performance coach at Future, says.
But I sit for hours at a time at my desk every week day. So why, then, did my back decide to nope out after sitting as a passenger in the car for less than half of a work day?
“Even if you are quote unquote ‘working’ at your desk for eight hours a day, it’s not like you’re just strictly sitting for eight hours straight,” says Abbigail Fietzer, DPT, an associate professor in the physical therapy program at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles. In contrast, a road trip doesn’t come with breaks in the kitchen, bathroom, or water cooler, so you really are sitting for longer periods of time (aside from the occasional pit stop).
You also might choose a position that’s comfortable in the moment, such as reclining, that ends up putting more pressure on your back in the long term.
“The way that our spine is built, it actually is best at dealing with the weight of your head and your arms and your upper body resting on your tush if you’re really upright,” Fietzer says. “So a lot of times when we drive, we end up, especially over time, getting into kind of a hunchy posture so that the spine isn’t stacked up right.”
How to prevent back pain in the car
It was too late for me and my crunchy back, but there are things you can do to make sure your body weathers the road-trip storm.
“One of the biggest things is the setup of your car,” Fietzer says. “The environment can make a big difference about how good or not good your back feels when you’re driving for a long time or even a passenger for a long time.”
Fietzer suggests positioning your seat so that you’re sitting up straight, with your knees slightly above your pelvis. You can also consider rolling up a towel and putting it behind your lower back, which will give you some lumbar support (or use a specialized lumbar support pillow).
She also says to take breaks as often as possible. And if you can’t, try to at least stretch and change positions every 20 to 30 minutes.
And engage those core muscles! “Whenever you think about it, just take a second to turn those muscles on because the more often we can cue our body into that sort of good posture, good loading, the less likely we are to hang out in bad posture for really long periods of time,” Fietzer says.
Practice that core engagement whenever you can, both in and out of the car, and work on your core and back muscles to make sure you have the physical strength to maintain good posture.
Get road-trip ready with these core exercises:
Three stretches that relieve lower back pain after a road trip
If you’re feeling the hurt and looking for some low back pain relief, there are moves that will specifically counteract the act of sitting and putting pressure on that low back.
“Think of stretching into the opposite way of how it had statically been,” Baker says. He explains that when you’re sitting for a long time, your “low back is flexed forward, pelvis is tilted back, and hips are in a flexed forward position as well.”
Prone press up
To counterbalance the flexion in your back, you’ll want to get into an extension. You can do this with a prone press up: Lie on your stomach with elbows bent and your palms on the floor next to your upper chest/shoulders. Keeping your hips on the ground, push up so your back arches, which will help you offset all that rounding forward.
For the pelvis, which has spent a long time being tilted back, Baker says you can do a “pelvic tilt,” which means laying on your back, tilting the hips forward by arching your back, and then releasing. You can also get the same effect with a cat-cow position: Get in a neutral table-top position on hands and knees. First, tilt your pelvis up, arch your low back, and lift your chest and head. Then do the opposite: Bring your head down, round your spine up, and tuck your pelvis under. And repeat!
Kneeling hip flexor stretch
And finally, to stretch your hips, Baker recommends a kneeling hip flexor stretch, also known as an equestrian yoga pose. Get in a lunge position and place your back knee down on the floor. Then shift forward so your front knee bends at an acute angle. Do this on both sides.
You can do these stretches after a long car ride, or even give them a try during a break along the way.
A road trip doesn’t have to mean low back pain. Keep stretching and strengthening, take breaks, and maybe don’t try to unpack your suitcase immediately after sitting for three hours!
But if you do, this strengthen and stretch routine for low back pain really helped give me some relief: