Prolonged sitting is one of the reasons lower back pain is so prevalent today. Much of our work, leisure and travel time is spent sitting. For those who travel regularly for work or fun, long hours behind the steering wheel may cause a significant amount of back pain.
Any static position can result in pain; since muscles rely on a contraction/relaxation cycle to pump in fresh blood and pump out waste products, holding them either contracted or relaxed for a prolonged period of time deprives them of what they need to produce energy for work. Drivers are at an even greater risk for back pain because their feet are tasked with working the pedals rather than stabilizing the body, which they normally do when we sit. Since the feet aren’t doing this job, the hip flexor muscles work overtime to stabilize the upper body.
The following tips are designed to help drivers avoid back pain caused by tightened psoas and other muscular dysfunctions.
• One way to prevent over-tightening of the hip flexors is to make sure your knees are bent at a 90 degree angle. If your knees are higher than your hips, you need to adjust your seat height or use a cushion to level your hips and knees.
• Another way to alleviate psoas tension is to make sure your feet can fully depress the pedals without having to overstretch your legs. Move the seat closer to the steering wheel until you can fully depress the pedals without reaching with the legs. This increases your stability and, in turn, lessens the hip flexors’ work load.
• While proper posture is usually associated with an upright upper body, in a vehicle it actually makes more sense to slightly recline your seat so that your upper and lower body are at a 100-110 degree angle. This lessens stress on your spinal joints and discs, which is particularly important in the car since your body absorbs some of the shock from bumps in the road. This shock would exert more force on your joints and discs if you were sitting up perfectly straight.
• Use a lumbar support cushion for long trips. There may be an adjustable cushion built into your seat. You can purchase one separately for about $20; you could also roll up a towel or fold a blanket over and position it behind the arch of your lower back. This will help prevent the lower back muscles from fatigue that would cause you to slump over.
• You want your steering wheel to be positioned so that your arms can easily reach it with a slight bend at the elbow. If the wheel is too far away or too high up, your shoulders will either tense up or hunch over, causing postural changes from the upper back to the pelvis. Keep the shoulders low and loose.
• Be mindful of your neck and head posture. If you’re craning your head forward and down, you’re setting yourself up for neck, upper back and shoulder pain. Position your headrest to support the middle back of your head.
Ideally, you’ll stop to take a break from sitting every hour to hour and a half. Make a conscious effort to take frequent breaks. You’ll lose some travel time, but also lose some of that residual back pain after a long drive.
The primary areas to stretch are the backs of the legs, the hips, the lower back and the shoulders. The SAIF Corporation, a worker’s compensation insurance program in Oregon, provides a series of stretches developed for professional truck drivers which can be found at www.saif.com.
Preventing back pain from driving will require you to change how you hold your body and how frequently you take breaks. For many, adding an extra half hour onto a long road trip is worth the advantage of a pain-free body.