5 Air Travel Tips to Keep Your Lumbar Spine Limber

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By Michael A. Gleiber, M.D.

As the holiday season rapidly approaches, many will be taking to the skies to reach their destinations over Thanksgiving and Christmas.

But let’s face it — between the long lines, airport delays, cramped planes, and increased cost for a few extra inches of personal real estate, flying has become less pleasant over the years. I don’t have a work-around for these issues; however, I do have some tips to help lessen back and neck pain while taking that flight to your holiday destination.

1. Make Sure You’re Supported.

Cell phone charger — check. New cashmere sweater — check. Back Support — Wait… what?!

The natural curve of our neck and back is shaped like the letter C. Sitting for hours without supporting the middle of the C will cause the lordosis in our spine to look more like (. Make sure your lumbar region is aligned parallel with the center of the seat, and that the headrest supports the center of your head. Bring a pillow to support your head and neck. If you’re worried about packing space, purchase an inexpensive inflatable travel pillow that can be readily be deflated. If you have recurring neck or spine issues, you may consider investing in a cervical or lumbar pillow for extra support. In a pinch, simply roll up a jacket or sweater to support your lower back.

2. When Permitted, DO Move Around The Cabin.

Try to walk in the aisle at least every 30 minutes, especially during long flights. If there is room, stretch out your hamstrings and hip flexors to ease tension in the lower back. Moving around keeps your blood circulating, which may help you to avoid blood clots. Another simple way to keep the blood moving (while seated) is to “Tap Your Toes” (picture stepping on and off the brake pedal). This exercise activates your calf muscles and helps squeeze stagnant blood back to your circulatory system. It also helps to deter stiffening and spasms in the lower legs and feet. Lastly, make sure your shoes aren’t too tight; unlace them or loosen when possible.

3. Don’t Drink and Fly

Don’t drink alcohol.Do drink plenty of water. Flying dehydrates the body; the high altitude promotes drying out of the skin and mucous membranes (sinus sufferers know this all to well). Alcohol further encourages dehydration and volume depletion by functioning essentially as a diuretic. Staying properly hydrated helps prevent circulatory problems that result in stiffened muscles throughout your back and legs.

4. Choose Carefully When Booking Your Flight.

Try to book the very first flight of the day. The plane is more likely to be on time, so you’ll have the luxury of avoiding delays and temptations of the ubiquitous high caloric fast food and spirits in every major airport. If a layover is necessary, limiting the downtime between flights is an obvious recommendation (unless of course, you are not in good standing with your in-laws). If you’re able to choose an aisle seat, do so. You’ll have slightly more lateral space to maneuver (if you can successfully avoid having your foot run over by the beverage cart) and be more likely to get up and move.

5. Lift Luggage Properly and Stow It Away

Choose a suitcase with wheels and an ergonomic handle that is lightweight. When lifting luggage, bend at the knees (not at the waist), using your leg muscles to do the heavy lifting. Try to distribute the weight evenly when carrying your bags with feet shoulder width apart. If you have a shoulder or messenger bag, switch sides frequently to avoid putting stress on one side of your body. Lastly, store bags in the overhead bin, rather than at your feet. You can squirrel away smaller bags (containing things frequently used) between your feet so to avoid excessive airline fees. Sounds obvious… yet many passengers still use this precious and limited space inefficiently.

Follow these tips, and your flight experience should be more comfortable — or at least tolerable.

Happy Holidays & Safe Travels!

Michael A. Gleiber M.D.

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