Why Do I Hurt After I Travel?
When you fly, take a train or drive for long periods of time, your body is forced into an unnatural position.
So what is the ideal body position?
The human spine is designed to sit in a specific curved formation. The vertebra are specifically shaped to fit in exactly this position. Take a look at the image of the spine to the left. You can see that each vertebral disk is spaced evenly and each disk’s shape fits exactly into its spot. Any change to this alignment will impact the way that you feel; either pulling on the attached muscles and soft tissue, pressing or nerves or compressing parts of your spine. Your body works hard to keep you aligned and it will always make an effort to keep your spine in balance. This fight puts a huge burden on you.
Most airplane and car seats are designed for the “average” passenger. You will notice that the seat to the right generally follows the contours or the average human spine, assuming you are the averageheight. Unfortunately the seat shape is not accurate to the ideal alignment for the human spine and people come in all different heights. Therefore when traveling you are often forced into a position that is not comfortable for your body. As a result your muscles kick in and try to help you maintain proper alignment, which is exhausting. Those muscles get overused and eventually become hypertonic (static muscle tightness causing postural deviation — for many people resulting in a minor hunch).
When your body is forced into an unnatural position the spaces between the vertebra in your spine are altered. This could impact the spinal cord or lead to herniated disks down the line but more immediately it will lead to muscle tightness and pain.
Great, now I know why it hurts, what do I do about it?
When traveling try to keep your body in its natural position as much as possible.
- Place a pillow under your lumbar spine to keep a healthy low back arch.
- Place a rolled towel (jacket, hoodie…) vertically along your spine to allow your shoulders to open and rest on the seat back.
- Place a very small pillow (scarf, sweater, shirt) under your neck horizontally. You should be able to relax your posterior neck muscles and avoid fighting gravity.
- Allow your arms to hang all the way down. You should not have to hold them up nor should they force your shoulders up.
- When driving, adjust your steering wheel so that your arms can relax when they are not in use.
- When traveling you spend most of your time in forward flexion so take breaks and stretch out your chest, stomach, and hip flexors.
- When sitting, your glutes are in a constant state of extension which can lead to hypotonic muscles. Make sure you activate them so they get some blood flow and stay healthy.
- When standing pull your leg all the way back while tightening your glutes.
- Regular visits to your massage therapist can help keep your spine aligned by reducing the muscle tension.
As always, if you ever have questions or concerns about body pain, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. I’ll do my best recommend solutions.
Clinical Sports Massage and Training CMT
San Francisco, CA