No one likes back pain. Some of us like driving. But absolutely none of us likes back pain while we’re driving.
You might be one of the thousands of disgruntled couriers, truck drivers and commuters who keep our country running and experience one of the most frustrating discomforts felt behind the wheel – surely the only thing worse than traffic is back pain. Even if you’re not settling into work or your daily trek to the office each day, popping on your podcast and shuffling around hoping that your back doesn’t play up too much and ruin your trip, many of us will go on road trips at one point or another and find ourselves plagued by this irritating phenomenon.
Picture this: you are planning a great roadtrip with your family. You’ve all agreed on the perfect playlist, you’ve crammed your bags, hats and pool toys into the back and you are all dreaming happily of the amazing beachy destination that is just a sweet few hours of driving away. Nothing could ruin your day. Except a few hours in, what starts as a niggling pain grows into an ache you can’t ignore. You’re three hours into the drive and your back apparently wants you to turn around and go home, because it is an even bigger pain than your kids constantly asking ‘are we there yet?’. Suddenly, the music is annoying, every bump of the car is an unwelcome reminder of how far there still is to drive, and the beach scenes in your mind’s eye are replaced with dreams of an orthopaedic chair or the kind hands of a skilled massage therapist. You’re not alone, because this pain is all too common. That’s why we’ve put together this guide to help you reduce your back pain and understand its causes, so that your back doesn’t drive you crazy! (Sorry not sorry for that pun)
Why do I get back pain when I drive?
The simple answer is that we are not designed to sit still for long periods of time. Our backs are designed for lots of natural and varied movement, where all of our other muscles support our back and are actively engaged, such as our glutes. I don’t know if you’ve tried this recently, but it’s pretty hard to run, jump, hop, skip or work out in a car. It’s probably also not recommended for safe driving!
Unfortunately, no one told your back this. So since driving involves sitting in a slightly unnatural and fixed position for what might feel like years (Brisbane traffic, we are looking at you), our back and shoulder muscles pipe up and say ‘Hey! What on earth do you think you’re doing? This sucks!” Our brain translates the message and this just feels like ‘Owww’ to us. You are also less likely to shift your weight or to move into comfortable positions as you are locked behind the wheel, making them even crankier at you.
To make matters worse for your poor spine and back muscles, your body is subjected to a whole range of forces while driving. And not quite the fun rollercoaster kind. You are stopping, starting, turning, and also vibrating from the various bumps and grooves on the road as you speed towards your work or holiday destination. Your feet normally help out while this is happening by providing stability and support, but when you’re driving they’re distracted by the pedals and are tilted at an angle instead, about as useless as your mate at work the next day after a big night out.
Car seats have apparently never been rick-rolled, because they will give you up and they will also let you down. Studies have also shown that car seats need to be improved to cater to a wider range of driver sizes, and to allow drivers to alter the amount of support for each part of their body. Car manufacturers thought about safety, driver positioning and aesthetic appeal and the guy who was supposed to make sure they’re ergonomic and well designed to keep your back, legs and hips in a good position for long periods of time apparently forgot to show up to work and do his part.
The area of your back most likely to be affected by this is your lower back, which bears the brunt of a lot of weight and movement. But you probably don’t care about the science while your lower back is giving you more trouble than the tax office. So what can you do about it?
5 Tips to help prevent back pain while driving
You could say that here at Sycamore Health we’ve really got your back. Here are our tips for fixing your back pain. Yes, we know some of them are a bit technical. But if you don’t do it, you can’t say we didn’t warn you!
Adjust your seat and steering wheel
The first thing you can do is make sure that your setup is as good as possible, so that no unnecessary strain is being placed on any part of your body.
You can start by adjusting the distance between your seat and the steering wheel. Your knees should be slightly bent when resting on the pedals. If they are too steeply bent, move the chair back. If they are out too straight, move the chair forward. Adjust until they rest comfortably, with a slight bend in the knees. If you drive an automatic, it’s also a good idea to make use of the rest pedal on the left. This may mean sliding your seat forward so your left leg can be slightly bent, allowing you to push into the rest pedal. This does two things; it ensures your low back is wedged securely into the seat and it ‘frees up’ your hands so you don’t ‘hang off’ the steering wheel.
Then, while you’re thinking about your knees, adjust the height of the seat so that your knees are level with your hips. (There’s probably a ‘hips don’t lie’ joke to be made here, but I alas.) You can ask someone outside the car to look and tell you if they are level. Ideally, get them to tell you that your legs look great at the same time. It won’t help your back, but it will boost your ego!
Next you want to adjust the angle of the back of the seat. The sweet spot is said to be a 100 degree angle, and the idea is to sit as far back in the seat as possible with the full length of your back touching and receiving support from the seat – and yes, that includes your shoulders! In order to make sure you aren’t hunched over the wheel, adjust your steering wheel to make sure that your arms can sit comfortably and safely on the wheel without your shoulders needing to round over or hunch forward. If you look like a granny hunched over the wheel, you’re doing it wrong.
Purchase lumbar back support.
If your car seat is still uncomfortable no matter how you adjust it, well, you could buy a new car. But that’s a bit of a hassle, not to mention a few tens of thousands of dollars (almost enough to get a full tank of petrol at the moment!). Thankfully, there’s a wide range of products available for purchase that you can simply fit over the top of your existing car seat, which provide additional support for your back while you are driving, especially lumbar support for your lower back.
If you aren’t sure which product is right for you to purchase, you can have a chat with your physio about your individual concerns, and they may even have products in stock which they can recommend. And personally, we think physios are a bit more helpful than car salesmen.
Take regular breaks
Okay, so you have the most comfortable seat in the world, with all the lumbar support you could dream of. Great! But your back is still not built for long periods of sitting still, so it’s a good idea to schedule in regular breaks while driving. Set an alarm or plan out your trip with frequent stops – at least one every hour or two. Then you can get out, stretch, walk, engage your glutes and other muscles to support and move your back in a healthy way. Just get moving. Maybe do the nutbush on the side of the road. You do you.
Pay Attention To Your Mirrors
Your rearview and side mirrors should all be comfortably positioned so that you don’t have to bend, lean or move in order to get a good view, as this can encourage poor posture and uncomfortable positions. If multiple people use your car and move the mirrors frequently, make it a habit to get into the car 5 minutes before you need to leave to make sure that the seat and mirrors are adjusted correctly to your seating position and height. We know it’s annoying. But your back and shoulders are the boss, so we do what they want!
Then pay attention to your views in the mirror throughout the day, if you notice the positions feel off and you need to keep adjusting them after a long time driving, it could be a sign that you are shifting your weight or slouching – meaning you may require more support to maintain a healthy posture. Maybe your abs are getting tired. But we don’t need to tell anyone else that!
Remember, all of these are merely suggestions. There is no one-size-fits-all seat position or posture. For example, perhaps you don’t tolerate a seat angle of 100 degrees and instead find 120 degrees comfortable; so be it! The goal is pain-free driving and this may require some trial and error. Again, this information should be viewed through the lens of ‘good options’ rather than ‘mandatory statutes’.
Explore and treat any underlying causes for your back pain.
There are a range of causes for back pain, and it’s possible that your back pain occurring while driving is actually letting you know about an underlying cause. Your muscles might really be trying to tell you something. They could be saying ‘Hey! You have an injury from a previous accident!” or “Stop overusing your muscles!” or “Stop using improper lifting techniques!” (We are looking at you, couriers!) A trip to your physiotherapist can be a helpful way to explore any underlying problems and treat the root cause of your pain.
It’s important to remember that making a lot of changes at once and by yourself can be quite difficult. We know you might not be motivated to make these changes alone either. It really helps to have a physio checking in and coaching you along.
If you make large and sudden adjustments to your posture, you may find that your muscles struggle to hold you in your new position for a two hour drive. At Sycamore Health we deliver high quality physiotherapy services and are happy to work with you in order to isolate the cause of your pain and develop strategies for improvement, implementing a plan specific to you and your needs.
Regular visits to check up and see how various possible solutions are working for you is a fantastic way to manage this problem. Call us today on 3046 1700 for more information or to book in with one of our physios.
All information is general in nature. Patients should consider their own personal circumstances and seek a second opinion.