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Protect your back when you travel

To keep your back healthy while you travel, pack light, lift safely and watch your posture.

Back pain can strike anyone. That's something many of us know from our own miserable experience.

But consider this: Back pain can also strike anywhere—even when you're traveling far from home. In fact, activities such as moving heavy bags and sitting for long periods in cars or planes can make travel a particularly perilous time for your back.

With a few precautions, though, you can make back pain less likely on your next trip.

Before you go

Wrestling with heavy, awkward suitcases can lead to back strain, so look for lightweight, wheeled luggage, preferably with handles on both ends.

Once you have the right bag, follow these rules for packing:

  • Lighten the load. Consider bringing fewer clothes and using an on-site laundry. Bring only the shoes and toiletries you'll need.
  • Divide and conquer. Two smaller, lighter suitcases are likely to be easier on your back than one big, heavy bag.
  • Leave it to the pros. If you're flying, check heavier pieces of luggage or consider shipping them to your destination ahead of time.

On the road

For the driver on a long car trip, it's important to take breaks, according to the North American Spine Society (NASS). The problem you are trying to avoid is being in the same position for a very long period. Typically, you want to take a break every hour or so. Stop, get out of the car, stretch and walk around.

Proper posture is also important. Recline your seat a bit, and be sure you have adequate lower back support. Adjust the seat so your elbows are slightly bent when you hold the steering wheel and your feet rest comfortably on the pedals. To take pressure off the right side of your body, consider using cruise control.

In the air

Especially on long flights, you should get up, move around and stretch.

You also need to be careful with your carry-on bags. Trying to get baggage in an overhead compartment can be a challenge for your back. So, if you can, pack your carry-on bags light.

As much as you can, lift with your legs, holding your bag close to your body. Try lifting in stages—first to the top of the seat and then into the overhead compartment. Take your time and don't twist. If you're having trouble, ask for help.

And don't forget: You can avoid the carry-on hassle altogether by simply checking your luggage, particularly the heavier items.

Coping with pain

If, despite your best efforts, you end up with back pain on your trip, a combination of medicine, ice and heat may help.

For medicine, try over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medicines or pain relievers. Use ice during the first 48 hours. After 48 hours, heat might be more soothing, according to the NASS.

You'll want to remain as active as you can. But do limit the stress you put on your back.

Try to avoid the kinds of things that tend to load the back, which includes lifting, twisting, bending and long-term sitting in unchanged positions.

Your back may be sore for the rest of your trip, but it should get better with time.

Most of the time back pain gets better on its own. If it remains, and particularly if it increases, then it's time to get some medical advice.

Reviewed 10/18/2022

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