Avoiding 'Traveler's Back'
Rick Bellet, a programmer for an insurance company, spends about eight or nine hours hunkered down in front of a computer screen everyday. But he balances that by working out in the gym now and again. So it wasn't the daily grind that did his back in, it was a vacation to Maine.
"I have the one kid. She'll be 3 soon, so she's not exactly a lightweight anymore. But she's still got this thing about Daddy carrying her on his shoulders everywhere," he explained. And on vacation, there's plenty of time to provide such indulgences. "I did feel my back weakening, especially walking on the beach, twinging and kind of a dull pain down there."
After a week, Bellet and his family drove nonstop from Kennebunkport to Philadelphia. When he woke up the morning after their return home, he felt pain in his back and was stiff from being in the car so long without a break. The real pain didn't come until after he spent an hour cleaning his pool, an activity that requires a lot of bending and stretching. Within a couple of hours, he had pain so intense he couldn't get in or out of a car.
His plans of spending the remainder of his time off swimming, relaxing and getting chores done around the house were ruined. He spent the remaining four days in bed with ice packs, ibuprofen and a lot of pain.
What Rick had was a case of "traveler's back." Sudden flare-ups of back pain are a common complication of a vacation.
Why Vacation Pains?
Vacation travel brings several stresses to bear upon the back, all at the same time. During plane or car travel, vacationers often sit immobile for hours at a time, and the back, hip and leg muscles become stiff and locked into a bent-over position. Upon arrival, the first order of business usually involves heavy lifting of luggage, kids and coolers, along with bending and twisting as you take them out of overhead bins, seats or car trunks. Then there's the issue of how fit you were before you hit the road.
If you have a job that requires sitting most of the day, your muscles, including muscles supporting the lower back, tend to lose flexibility. The muscles particularly affected are those in the abdominal area and the gluteus maximus — the muscles that act as a kind of corset to support the back. The stiffness of travel, combined with inherent muscle weakness and the challenge of lifting and twisting heavy objects, can lead to fatigue, soreness and spasms of the back muscles, causing severe back pain.
Follow the tips at right to avoid traveler's back. If you do succumb, bed rest is helpful — but only for a couple of days. After that, you should be able to get up and ease back into your routine, avoiding heavy lifting and long periods of driving altogether. To ease the pain and inflammation, you can take over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen, but don't exceed the recommended daily dose. You also can try applying a bag of crushed ice or a heating pad on the sore area, or take a hot shower. Whatever you do, the pain should slowly decrease and then disappear within a week or so.
If you develop extreme pain in your back, or weakness or decreased sensation in your legs, you should call your doctor right away.
Tips for Preventing Traveler's Back
At home: Follow a regular exercise program that includes an upper-body workout. Ask your physician for exercise advice or a referral to a physical therapist or exercise trainer.
On the road:
Pull over every hour or so. Get out of the car, walk around, stretch and touch your toes. Rotate drivers, if you can, so you don't get frozen into driver's posture. If you're on a plane, get up from your seat and walk up and down the aisle.
Maintain good posture while traveling, using a lumbar-support pillow and keeping your back straight. Adjust the steering wheel, mirrors, seats, etc., to fit you. Don't drive while fatigued, which contributes to bad posture. Stop and take a nap if you're tired.
When lifting heavy objects: Don't bend at the waist. Use a straight back and bend at the knees. Avoid twisting motions, and be especially careful when you take items in or out of the trunk of a car. Get help carrying heavy items. Use a luggage cart or wheeled luggage to carry the burden.