Back pain is often not caused by anything in particular — but staying active can help to prevent it. This means that people who spend a lot of time driving can be particularly prone to the problem.
Why is driving bad for your back?
There are two main reasons why driving impacts your back: poor posture and being in a fixed position for an extended period of time. The forces felt from accelerating, braking, turning or even from bumps in the road can put added pressure on your back and lead to discomfort or pain which can escalate over time.
According to Jan Vickery, Lead Physiotherapist at AXA Health: “Our backs are designed to move, so being stuck in an uncomfortable static position for a long time while driving can result in back trouble. The majority of people will suffer with lower back pain at some stage in their life, but those who need to drive for more than 4 hours a day on a regular basis are more at risk.”
How to prevent back pain when driving
- Adjust your back rest so that it makes contact with your back from your bottom to your shoulders, about 100 to 110 degrees. Reclining too far back will make you strain your head and neck forward.
- The lumbar support on your driving seat is usually curved and raised near the lower half of the backrest. If your vehicle does not have lumbar support built-in, the same can be achieved by purchasing a detachable support, or as a temporary measure, with a rolled-up towel.
- Take regular breaks, stretch, and walk around.
- If your vehicle has a cruise control function – and it is safe to use – utilising it will allow you to rest both feet on the floor and take some of the pressure off your lower back.
- Move the steering wheel up or down to the most comfortable position and distance from your body. Varying your hand position when you are driving can also help to relieve joints and improve circulation.
- Slide your seat forwards or back so that your elbows are 90 degrees or slightly more when your hands are at the 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock position on the wheel.
- Position your bottom all the way to the back of the seat to support the natural ‘S’ shaped curvature of the spine and adjust your seat so that it supports the full length of your thighs. Avoid any pressure behind your knees as this can reduce your circulation.
- Ensure your head is centred in the middle of your headrest to further prevent any aches or pains developing.
- Position your mirrors so that you can easily see all around without straining your back or neck.
- If your job also involves lifting items in and out of your vehicle, ensure your lower back is kept straight and that you bend from your knees. Your back is vulnerable when you lift incorrectly, especially after you’ve been static for a long period of time.
When to seek treatment for back pain
The NHS says you should seek immediate medical attention if you have any of the following symptoms:
- Inflammation or swelling on your back
- Constant pain that doesn’t ease after resting or movement
- Pain high up in your back or that travels to your chest
- Unexplained weight loss
- A high temperature (38C/104F or above)
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
- If the back pain started after a serious accident
- Numbness or tingling around your buttocks or genitals.
If you already suffer from back pain when driving
Heat and cold packs
Bring along a heat pack or cold pack, depending on the one that works best for your back pain. You can make a cold pack by wrapping an ice pack in a towel, or you can purchase an ice pack to keep in your vehicle. You can plug heat packs into your vehicle to provide you with continuous heat. Use your vehicle’s heated seats if you have them.
Create a smooth ride
For many drivers with chronic back pain, the worst part of driving is the bumps in the road that can jar the spine.
- Choose a vehicle based on the smoothness of the ride
- Ask your physiotherapist or doctor to recommend a coccyx pillow
- Limit the bounce in your vehicle by replacing worn shock absorbers
- Replace worn tires and slightly reduce tire pressure (keeping within safety guidelines)