Whether you’re traveling this summer by car or plane, stuck in traffic for a nightmarish amount of time—especially with the upcoming 53-hour closure of the 405 Freeway—or simply sitting down at work all day, these extended periods of sitting often contribute to neck and lower back pain.
If you have wondered about ways to alleviate this pain or at least lessen it, Chantal Donnelly, a physical therapist who has a local private practice and combines traditional, hands-on therapy techniques and Pilates-based exercise to help her patients through the recovery of various physical dysfunctions, offers a bunch of great tips and exercises that can be done while driving, at a traffic standstill, while sitting at a computer or while suspended 40,000 feet in the air.
If you are heading out on a long road trip or know you will be stuck in traffic, there are ways to combat stiffness before even getting into the car. Donnelly explains there are preventative measures you can take to ease stiffness that often comes with sitting for long periods of time. First she explains that, “people need to change their negative perceptions about the traffic.”
This is because perceived stress increases the activity in the upper trap muscles. Therefore, for instance, with the closing of the , it is best to give yourself more time to account for increased traffic in order to decrease your time stress levels. This will allow people to be more physically relaxed when driving and not overwork the neck muscles.
The two main areas where people get stiff are in the neck and lower back. One main trigger while driving that also contributes to neck pain is gripping the steering wheel too tight.
Donnelly says the best way to decrease this is “to do back strengthening while you are driving, by placing your hands at 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock on the steering wheel and pull your shoulder blades down. This stimulates the mid back muscles to work and tells the upper back muscles to turn off.”
You can do five on each shoulder blade and then five together. This will help strengthen and create fewer problems later on. Also, stretching the neck helps as well, by doing little side stretches like placing your ear to your shoulder while just sitting in traffic.
Another way to decrease back stiffness is adjusting the distance your seat is from the steering wheel. Donnelly points out that it is better to sit closer to the steering wheel so you are not reaching for the gas pedal. However, it is also beneficial to adjust the seat’s distance, maybe a half of an inch to change the way the muscles have been working.
This takes tension off of areas that have been working for the majority of the time spent in the car.
Next, Donnelly explains that the main hip flexor is attached to the lower back and while you are sitting, it is in a shortened position because your hips are flexed. This can pull on your lower back from being in this tight position for an extended period of time, which contributes to a lot of back stiffness.
The other factor adding to back stiffness are the hamstrings, which are attached to the bottom part of your pelvis. Since you are sitting with your knees bent, these will automatically tighten up your back. The way to decrease this tightness can begin even before you get into the car by stretching your hamstrings and hip flexors.
To decrease the stiffness while driving, you can do pelvic tilts by flattening your back into the seat of the car so the small of your back is completely flattened and pushed into the back of the seat, then roll your pelvis forward so you are sitting on your sit bones, which creates an arch in your back. The combination of flattening and arching can be repeated several times, but this exercise should only be done when stopped in traffic, not driving.
These exercises can also be done before flying. Donnelly recommends stretching your hip flexors and hamstrings before getting onto a plane and when you get off. She also advises, if the fasten your seatbelt sign isn’t on of course, to get up during the flight and stretch these same muscles.
One other exercise that can be done to help with lower back pain is to pull in your abdominals. Donnelly describes that, “this muscle acts like a corset. It’s almost like wrapping a big ace bandage around your waist so it supports the back, so if you pull it in, you get support there.”
All of these exercises, whether you decide to test out one or try them all, will definitely decrease shoulder and back pain, making sitting for lengthy periods of time while driving, flying or at your desk much more relaxed and comfortable.
If you are interested in learning more about these exercises, Chantal Donnelly has two videos, Pain Free At Work and Strong Knees, available on her website, www.bodyinsight.com.