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How to travel with lower back pain (from someone who broke his back!)

How to travel with lower back pain (from someone who broke his back!)

Five years ago, I was involved in a boat accident in St. Maarten. Aboard Captain Alan’s speed boat, the skipper set out against waters so choppy he never should have been taking us out in the first place. Before it was too late, we hit a rogue wave that flung me high in the air, and I landed right on my butt, hearing a crack. As you can imagine, it totally sucked. 

Several passengers suffered minor injuries, but I literally broke my back. (The sad part is that Captain Alan's did nothing to help—the laws are different under Dutch jurisdiction—so everyone injured that day had a rude awakening. That's a whole other story.). In the end, I fractured my spine (which healed) and I still have two herniated discs, sciatica and degenerative disc disorder from the accident (these are long term). It’s the worst setback for a travel writer considering the number of long flights I take, long dinners, lifting heavy suitcases, constant commuting, constantly sitting at a desk in front of my laptop, etc. I had to significantly adjust the way I traveled, though I’m just one of millions. 

According to the American Chiropractic Association, 60 to 80 percent of adult Americans suffer from lower back pain, and it’s the number two reason why people see doctors. From sprains and strains to ruptured disks, chronic lower back pain can prevent people from taking their dream vacation or make commutes a nightmare for business travelers. It took time to comfortably master long-haul flights, and I discovered some incredible ways to help alleviate back pain when I travel. Considering I take an average four flights a month and/or drive long distances, I really had no choice—but it's been incredibly helpful. I listed several ways travelers can comfortably manage lower back pain when they travel.

8 ways to travel better with lower back pain!

1) Don’t fly economy on flights more than four hours. If there’s a way you can avoid economy on long-haul flights, do whatever you can to make this happen. Use miles, pay, learn how to hypnotize gate agents, whatever. You don't want to sit in coach. 

My doctor gave me strict orders not to take flights more than four hours in economy as sitting for a prolonged period puts a massive amount of stress and pressure on your spine. I can barely take long transcontinental flights without serious discomfort after landing. If you fly long distance, most airlines now offer lie-flat seats in business class that significantly reduces the pressure. If you absolutely must fly coach on long-haul flights, strategically plan to fly when the cabin is not full so you may be able to get your own row to lie down rather than sit. You won’t believe the difference this makes, and it has worked wonders for me. Also, take an aisle seat so you can get up and walk around at your leisure without annoying your seatmates. While I haven’t done so, I’ve heard bringing a medical letter to the flight crew can help accommodate you better. It might actually work better than hypnotism. Also, note that premium economy on long-haul flights is not any better than coach. The seats typically recline a little more, but your spine endures the same level of pressure and stress. I learned this the hard way when I once flew premium economy from Los Angeles to Hanoi, Vietnam. I couldn’t walk for two days after landing.

 Thanks to lie-flat seats, business class is the way to go when you travel. Here I am on American Airlines' 777-300. 

Thanks to lie-flat seats, business class is the way to go when you travel. Here I am on American Airlines' 777-300. 

 

2) Focus on mobilizing your hips and glutes every day on vacation. Stretching and light glute activity greatly help hip mobility after a flight or long drive, and it can prevent symptoms from flaring. Definitely keep the focus on your hips and glutes.

On a recent trip to One & Only Reethi Rah in the Maldives, I was stoked to learn that the resort partners with Bodyism, a London-based health and fitness facility known for its success with spine and joint injuries (and also works with A-list clients like Elle McPherson). I booked a private training session with Jamie Wendt, director of Bodyism global and performance specialist. Considering Maldives is such a long haul, Jamie typically sees one out of three guests who arrive with back problems. “Back prehabilitation—a plan to prevent possible injuries—is the secret to avoiding back pain while traveling. Vacationers need to make sure they mobilize their hips and upper back and strengthen their glutes and core. Getting the hip and upper back mobile can take pressure off the lower back after a long flight or sitting at a desk all day. We make sure our clients switch on the glutes and core to take pressure off the back.”

While the “Superman” and hip extensions are common exercises for chronic back pain sufferers, Jamie showed me simple exercises that my physical therapist never did, including the Y and T (standing in a high squat and raising your arms forward and above so your body forms a Y or T, repeating each 10 times).

 He's no Henry Cavill, but... 

He's no Henry Cavill, but... 

 

3) Travel as light as possible. When I travel, I generally carry a backpack for my laptop, notebook, toiletries, chicken heads, basically anything I could fit in it. Since my accident, I bought a smaller backpack to help slash the load from my shoulders for less impact on my lower back. I currently use the Hercules Laptop Bag by ECBC, a slim, water-repellant backpack that’s still in great shape after two years. My current physical therapist also suggested I make the straps super tight and fitted, so it doesn't weigh down hard. Great suggestion! I'm still doing it. Luggage should also be light. Sure, they may have wheels, but consider how many times you lift it during a trip (putting it in an overhead bin on a flight, placing it on a luggage rack in your hotel room, etc). While I’m at it, lift with your legs, not your back!

 EC BC backpack.

EC BC backpack.

 

4. Use your jacket or sweater as a pillow. You can’t rely on airlines’ pillows as they offer little comfort these days. I have my own special pillow for sitting but also helpful is a jacket or thick sweater for back support (feel free to take your own pillow too, but don't leave it on the plane! I used to do that all the time). The lumbar support truly helps cushioning, straightens the spine, prevents slouching and alleviates pressure. 

 This is the bear pillow I always travel with (it definitely stands out so I no longer leave the pillow on planes!). If you're good at leaving things on planes, get a bear pillow. Or use your jacket or sweater. 

This is the bear pillow I always travel with (it definitely stands out so I no longer leave the pillow on planes!). If you're good at leaving things on planes, get a bear pillow. Or use your jacket or sweater. 

 

5. Check into a wellness resort for your vacation. One of the best trips I’ve ever taken was to Chiva Som Health Institute just two hours outside of Bangkok. Chiva Som is world renowned for its health, fitness and wellness programs, so I wanted to see how it could “fix” me. I didn’t expect a miracle, but I nearly got one. Guests pick a themed wellness plan, and I chose Optimal Performance, which helps those recovering from accidents and injuries. Every day, I had one-on-one physiotherapy, a massage and a program tailored to my condition, including kinesthetics, gyrotonic and neuromuscular activation.  It was the first time since my accident I can remember waking up without any back pain. While the trip involved plenty of physical therapy, it was still a vacation. Chiva Som has all the features of a resort with a beachside location, relaxing pool, excellent Western and Thai cuisine, and an amazing spa. Out of the dozen wellness resorts I’ve visited in the past few years, it was the most effective for my back.

 Chiva Som, a wellness resort that I included in this story for Passport magazine.

Chiva Som, a wellness resort that I included in this story for Passport magazine.

 

6. Make time for Pilates. For years, I was taking free yoga classes at hotels whenever possible for that great stretch. But strong advice from authorities steered me to Pilates. Pilates helps strengthen muscles, improves flexibility and toughens your core. Every time I take a Pilates class, I let the instructor aware of my two herniated discs so, during the class, he/she can advise me on alternative positions when something might be too risky for my back. Because Pilates is so core-focused, it naturally helps spine health and posture, which has an impact on your back. Pilates isn’t offered frequently at hotels and resorts, though concierge has directed me to nearby facilities and even gyms that charge a nominal one-time fee. I don't recommend downloading Pilates exercise videos or practicing it on your own if you’re not experienced.

 Stretch it out. 

Stretch it out. 

 

7. Mind your diet. I’m a firm believer that you don’t truly visit a destination without exploring the culinary scene. Food is part of the culture. But I still try to balance out my meals with healthy items. Obviously, I’m going straight for that steak in Argentina, street food in Thailand and pasta in Italy but always in moderation. “Diet can indirectly have an affect on your back,” says Bodyism’s Jamie Wendt. “Eating the incorrect foods can cause inflammation and lower intestinal bloating, which can switch off your core and result in an overused, sore back.” Minimize the intake of high-carb and processed foods, both of which fuel inflammation. One thing that also helps, especially in tropical destinations, is easing back on water. It’s beneficial to drink tons of water while traveling but I like to offset the water bloat by eating cucumbers and tomatoes, both of which are 95 percent water.

 Mmmmm, delicious. But probably best to avoid heavy foods while you travel (in moderation).

Mmmmm, delicious. But probably best to avoid heavy foods while you travel (in moderation).

 

8) Get thyself to a pool. If I’m not traveling to a coastal destination, I like to book hotels that have swimming pools. Swimming is the first thing I do right off the plane. It helps mobility, strengthens the back and the buoyancy of the water takes stress off the joints. I’m by no means a professional swimmer, but moving around is better than sitting around!

 The pool at Kimpton Aertson in Nashville was perfect to do some physical therapy. 

The pool at Kimpton Aertson in Nashville was perfect to do some physical therapy. 

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