Driving can be a stressful experience. The daily traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway. Drivers who dart in front of you without the courtesy of a turning signal. The challenge of successfully clearing center-city traffic light cameras. The short fuse of fellow drivers exacerbated by the ongoing psychic load of the global pandemic.
But this isn’t the worst of it. If you have neck, back or shoulder issues, sitting in a car for an extended period can be excruciating. Even without back problems, sitting in a car’s seat for a long drive can lead to discomfort and soreness.
Typical seat design doesn’t help. Many car seats are designed for average body types. The problem is that many of us are constructed differently than that ‘average.’ If we are taller, shorter, wider or more slender than the averages that auto manufacturers refer to as ‘norms’, we’ll have a harder time comfortably fitting into seats designed for those average dimensions.
Which brings us to one of the most important things to keep in mind. All our bodies are different. So although we’ll provide you with some tips to alleviate your back pain when driving, you’ll need to find a mix of those tips that works best for your own uniqueness.
1. Your Seating Positions and Seat Adjustments Should Promote an Upright Spine
If you want to avoid back pain when driving, keep the thought of maintaining a good posture in mind.
Before you start driving, get comfortable. Pull your wallet, cell phone and other bulky items out of your pockets. Position yourself properly with your back fully against the back of your seat.
Adjust your seat back or forward, up or down so that you aren’t up too close or have to strain forward to see. Your seat height should be as high as your knees – and there should be a gap between the back of your knees and the front of the seat to promote healthy circulation.
When your seat is reclined to about a 30-degree angle, it normally will support the least amount of lower back disc pressure.
2. Hold Your Steering Wheel Properly
Relax your arms so that you have a gentle bend at your elbows. Place your hands so that they are at the 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock position which will allow you to rest your elbows on the vehicle’s armrests to alleviate stress and pain on your upper back.
3. Adjust Your Headrest and Keep Your Head Back
If your head rest can tilt forward, adjust it so that you can drive with your head touching it with your chin level and your shoulders back. Don’t force your head backward however if you can’t adjust it forward enough so your head touches – what is most important is maintaining good posture.
The top of the headrest should be no lower than your eye level.
4. Use Your Car Seat’s Lumbar Support Correctly
If your car has a lumbar support, adjust its depth by moving it from flat until it comfortably fills the arch of your back. When set correctly, you should feel an even pressure from your hips to your shoulders.
If your car doesn’t have adjustable lumbar support, you can use a lumbar pillow. These are widely available from a range of providers.
5. Adjust Your Mirrors
Prevent neck strain by making sure your rear-view and side mirrors are properly adjusted. External mirrors can be adjusted horizontally and vertically.
It’s easy to check you’ve got this right: you should be able to see the traffic behind you without having to crane your neck. Once adjusted properly, if you find yourself wanting to adjust the mirror during your drive, it may be a sign that you are starting to slump in the seat.
6. Use Cruise Control
If your car has a cruise control option, use it whenever possible. By using cruise control, your legs can be bent and help support some of your body weight. This takes some of the load off your spine and reduces your chances of developing back pain while driving.
7. Shift Your Position Periodically
When possible, try to move a little in your seat. Even 10 seconds of movement and stretching is better than sitting still. At a minimum, adjust your seat and change your position slightly every 15 to 20 minutes. Pump your ankles to keep the blood flowing and provide a slight stretch in your hamstring muscles. Any movement that is safe to do in the car will help you out.
8. Take Frequent Breaks During Long Drives
Stopping frequently while on a long road trip may not be ideal but it can help reduce the stress on your spine. At each stop make sure you get out, walk around and stretch before getting back on the road again.
Sitting in one position in a car will stiffen up your back muscles and can lead to achiness and possibly muscle spasm. Everyone should ideally take at least a 15-minute break for every 2 hours of driving. If you’re prone to back pain, you may want to take breaks more frequently, such as every 30 to 60 minutes.
9. Apply Heat to Your Back
If your car has a heated seat, turning it on can bring some relief. If you don’t have heated seats, there are heated seat covers available on the market that sit on top of your car’s seat. Heat can help loosen your muscles and joints and possibly reduce your back pain.
It Will Take Some Time to Find the Adjustments that Work Best for You
Setting up your car seat so that it works best for you as an individual will take a bit of trial and error. Start with the suggestions that we have provided and try it for a few days – and then start to make small gradual adjustments one at a time.
You’ll eventually find the right combination of adjustments that minimizes the stress on your back and which provides you with the most comfortable driving position possible for your unique body.