by Cora Maglaya, PT, ATC. CSCS
The holidays are a time for celebration, family bonding and great food. Many of us will soon be traveling to visit family or friends. Back pain as a result of traveling can ruin your visit. Follow these 5 simple tips during your holiday travels to maintain a healthy spine and avoid back pain.
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1. Getting your luggage down the stairs when you leave home (**Click on photos below for full view)
Every holiday season, my 5 foot tall frame struggles to carry my luggage down 1 flight of stairs without scratching the wooden floor. I am vertically challenged. Even with proper body mechanics, I find it really difficult to protect my back while lifting my 50 pound luggage down each step. I work out regularly and teach patients every day how to perform a proper squat. Yet when the holidays roll around, upon arriving at my destination I suffer back pain from having lifted my luggage while traveling. One day out of pure frustration I tried a new technique to get my luggage down the stairs. Ever since this discovery I am pain-free during my travels. Lay 2 thick bath towels at the top of the staircase. Lay the luggage horizontal or flat with the handle facing you (Photo 1). Next, hold onto both the luggage handle and the bath towels and slowly drag the luggage down the stairs. If you have carpet, you can skip the bath towels and lay the luggage flat on its side and slowly drag down the stairs (Photo 2).
2. Choosing your handcarry for the trip
Use a backpack to evenly distribute the weight across your back (Photo 3). Do not carry the backpack on one shoulder (Photo 4). Carrying a heavy side shoulder bag will enhance your spine to deviate to one side.
If you have no choice but to use a side shoulder bag, make sure your spine is not compensating in a side bending position. Also, it is very easy to overload the backpack; I see this happen all the time with children. An easy way to test if the backpack is overloaded beyond what is safe for a person's body type is to see if the spine is leaning forward or making a C-shape in order to counterbalance the weight. If the person is able to stand in the same tall upright position without the backpack versus with the backpack on, then chances are the individual can safely carry that load.
3. Sitting in the deathtrap position on the plane or in the car
Avoid the death trap of side sitting in the airplane or car. A common postural error patients make is sleeping with their spine in a shifted position (Photo 5). It is safe to rest your arm or head to the side, but your sit bones should bear weight equally while seated (Photo 6). This low back shifted sitting position can bring on a herniated disc. I am always able to predict which direction a patient was leaning while sleeping on the plane when I examine their back in a post-travel treatment session.
4. Neck pillows - Yay or Nay?
I am often asked if neck pillows are good and which ones to use. During my experimentation, I bought a neck pillow from the airport. What I noticed is that typical neck cushions frequently sold in airports and wellness stores are so thick that they push your head too far forward (Photo 7).
An ideal pillow for the airplane or car should keep your neck in a neutral position. Neutral is the natural curve your neck has that does not put strain on the neck muscles or ligaments. Ears should be in midline with the shoulders on a side view (Photo 8). My personal preference is to use a sweatshirt or jacket and bunch it up, placing it behind the neck to mimic your head in an elongated tall position while sitting. The neck support is a Pilates reformer pillow and is easily portable for travel.
5. Getting your luggage up the stairs at your destination
I have one quick packing tip, thanks to my mother, before we talk about unpacking. Use large bags, equivalent to a clear plastic bag that would store a computer, to categorize and separate luggage contents.
If your destination is someplace where there is no bellhop or elevator and you need to get luggage up the stairs, this next tip, while not necessarily the most convenient, is definitely worth the time and energy. It will help you avoid back pain during the holidays, when you do not have the time to do 30 minutes a day of core strengthening exercises.
Unload as much as you can from your luggage on the ground floor. Take multiple trips to put away your toiletries, shoes, clothes, packed gifts and everything else. By the time I am carrying my luggage up the stairs at my parent's house, it is virtually empty.
* Article contains images and text provided for informational and educational purposes. Consult your physician or other qualified medical care provider prior to applying these tips for personal use. Reader assumes full responsibility and liability for any injury or damages incurred as a result of following these tips.
** Photo illustrations by Cora Maglaya; special acknowledgements to John Dillon, John Sweetman, Dave Mun and Colleen Mun.
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