I can never sit comfortably on a flight; I’ve struggled with lower back pain for years. After emerging from a long flight spent in a middle seat, I have been known to collapse on the floor of the airport like an infant that’s learning to walk.
If you struggle with a similar problem, it’s normal—sitting in a cramped space with few resources beyond a pillow and armrests can be uncomfortable for even the most dexeterous of travellers. However, there are a few things you can do to stave off those familiar bodily aches you might experience in your back, legs, or neck after a long flight.
We spoke to Blake Dircksen, a New York-based doctor of physical therapy at Bespoke Treatments and creator of Nightcap Training, about the importance of stretching, compression socks, and why putting a bag in the overhead bin can prove a painful experience for some travellers (i.e., lower back pain sufferers like me).
If you’re able to get up, stretch as often as you can
What makes sitting in a cramped seat for hours on end so uncomfortable? Well, if it isn’t obvious already, it’s your body’s inability to move.
“Your body craves motion,” Dircksen said. “When you’re in a position for too long, those tissues become compressed and there’s a lack of oxygen going to those tissues ... Without that oxygen, the tissue goes into an anaerobic state and you start to build up lactic acid—that’s the dull achy feeling that you get when you’re seated for too long.”
Dircksen recommends moving, stretching, and getting up whenever possible—between drink carts passing through the aisle, of course.
“To try and stave off some of that soreness, I like to move as much as I can, maybe some calf raises, ankle pumps, twisting the back,” he said. “I don’t want to say everyone can do this without reservation, but generally, if you’re in an unloaded position, you should be able to bend, flex, or rotate the spine. That’s a great way to get fluid into the vertebrae disks and get [the] blood flow moving. Movements and a variety of movements are the best antidotes to those aches that come with sitting for too long.”
If you’re able, Dircksen recommends one exercise for lower pain back sufferers. “It’s as simple as spreading your legs just a little bit, slowly inching your way down, and trying to grab your shoes or put your hand on the floor. Hang out in that position for 30-45 seconds, breathe through your belly, and give your back muscles a chance to relax. It’s going to be safe for most people.”
For this reason, you might want to choose the aisle seat the next time you book a flight, particularly if you want to get up without disturbing your seatmates.
Also, if you plan to grab or place your bag in an overhead bin, Dircksen compares the movement to a power clean, a common lift you might spot at the gym; to avoid over-extending the back and placing pressure on the back, lift with your knees and brace your core so you won’t experience any pain.
When it comes to surviving a long flight and the ensuing jet lag, we've suggested downloading some podcasts (or TV shows/movies), bringing a book and remembering to get up and move every now and then. You'll also want to stay hydrated, bring some snacks and remember to charge all of your electronics ahead of time. Have a trip of your own coming up? Consider some of these recommendations.
If you’re stuck in your seat, use a few handy tools
If your companions are asleep and you’d rather not crawl over them, Dircksen recommends a few simple tools to avoid flight aches. Beyond moving and stretching in your seat, you should use a pillow or sweater behind your neck and lower back, so your body is placed in a more neutral position (Or purchase a neck pillow. I prefer feather ones to memory foam pillows, which I found to be too firm and uncomfortable, but that’s just my opinion.) Reclining your seat as far back as possible can help your back, too.
Bring a pair of compression socks whenever possible, particularly if you’re vulnerable to blood clots. “Arteries have these small muscles that help pump blood through the body. When blood transfers to the venous system, the veins don’t have those muscles they rely on movement of our own body and our bigger muscles to pump that blood back up to the heart and recirculate again. When you’re seated there, stagnant on a plane, you lack that movement to cycle the blood through. All the socks do is increase that pressure and reduce blood pooling in the legs.”
You might also find a lacrosse ball helpful if you’re experiencing any knots on your body; you can apply pressure on and around the knot to relieve some of the pressure.
Is there any way to completely avoid the discomfort of a middle seat? Likely not. But if the thought terrifies you and you’re willing and able to afford it, there’s the option to purchase a premium economy or business class seat on most flights, which might provide a little more legroom and space to recline.