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Don’t let your road trip be a pain: tips for managing summer vacation car travel

School is out, summer is here, and, oh, the places you’ll go! But if the idea of managing your chronic back pain during a cross-country (or even cross-state) car ride is giving you pause, don’t cancel just yet! Your pain care experts at iSpine Clinics have helpful tips for managing road trip pain so you can enjoy your summer vacation.

Helpful hints for managing road trip pain

Get your kicks on Route 66

Well, maybe not specifically, but you SHOULD be strategic about your route. Don’t just hop in the car and go—take some time prior to your trip to look ahead, plan drive stretches and stops. You know you best, so make that the basis of your planning. Would you be fine with a 15 minute stop every 3 hours? Or do you need a 5-minute break every hour and a half? You might even be able to build in a little unexpected fun along the way—sure, you could pull over at any old gas station, but with a little forethought and planning, you could fit in a break and get a once-in-a-lifetime selfie with the World’s Largest Ball of Twine instead!

When you do make a stop, here’s a couple tips. First, remember that you’ve been stationary for a while, and transition out of the car carefully! Depending on your pain levels and mobility, you might want to consider the full-body-swivel to stand up. Without twisting your spine, rotate your entire body, legs and all, toward the door. Drop your feet to the ground, hang on to the doorframe, and carefully come to standing with support. Or, ask a tripmate to help you out!

You also want make sure you’re taking full advantage of your break. Sitting for long periods leads to stiffness, joint aches, and muscle spasms. So don’t just get out of the car and do a quick backbend—really take a minute to move around. You can do some quick, low-impact calisthenic exercises, like hamstring curls, small squats, torso twists. Or just explore, and let the walking move your blood through your body.  Motion is lotion!

Be a fidgeter!

Between breaks, when you’re in your seat for long stretches, there’s no rule that says you have to sit perfectly still! You can fidget, change position as much as possible, and generally just try to keep blood pumping through your body.  Here are some in-seat stretches you can try:

  • Seated shoulder stretch: Sit tall and stretch your arm across your chest. Use your opposite hand to draw the arm closer to the chest, making sure you keep your shoulder dropped and held back (imagine your most proper posture). Hold for 30 seconds to a minute, and then repeat on the opposite arm.
  • Seated forearm stretch: Again, sitting straight up with good posture, reach one arm straight out in front of you, with the inside of your forearm facing upward. With your other hand, pull the fingers on your outstretched arm down and back towards your body. Feel the stretch on your inner forearm. Hold for 30 seconds to a minute, then switch!
  • Seated upper back stretch: Forget about your posture! Here, you want to let your upper body relax and fall forward, reaching your hands toward the dashboard. Round your shoulders and upper back, and take a deep breath as you walk your fingers out as far as possible on the dash. Hold this position for—you guessed it!—30 seconds to a minute.
  • Seated chest stretch: Sitting back up straight, extend the arm in the center of the vehicle outward and behind the seat/headrest next to you. Keep your shoulder held down and back, and stretch by gently rotating your chest away from your extended arm. Hold for 30 seconds to a minute. Unfortunately, you’ll only be able to do one side in this position, so remember to stretch the opposite side on your next break. (You can do it standing next to the car, in that case.)

Check out our “5 Easy Stretches in the Car” blog post for pictures and tips. 

YOU get a car, and YOU get a car!

No, I’m not suggesting you buy a new car specifically for this road trip (but if Oprah wants to give you one…). BUT, if you have options for vehicles to take, or if you ARE in the market for a new vehicle, it’s worth prioritizing your comfort when making the decision on which car to choose. Many people with chronic pain recommend cars that sit high off the ground, or chairs that are particularly firm for support.  Take the time prior to your trip (or while you are car shopping) to really pay attention to how you feel in the seat.

Proper maintenance and vehicle adjustments can help, as well! Before leaving on your vacation, make sure your cars shocks and tires are in good condition. It will lessen the bumps and impact along the way. Also, double-check that the power steering and cruise control are in proper working order. Setting the cruise as often as possible is a great way to take strain off your legs and lower back.

Finally, most modern cars come equipped with ergonomic adjustment options. Sit in the car prior to taking off and tweak the steering wheel to the height that’s most comfortable. Move your seat forward and back, and adjust the lumbar support if that’s an option. In general, proper alignment should leave your knees just slightly higher than your hips and your arms comfortably extended without any shoulder hunching. Make the car work for you, not the other way around!

back pain while driving

The right tools make all the difference

In addition to the car itself, there are plenty of comfort tools nowadays that can help minimize road trip pain. Seat cushions, additional lumbar support pillows, and padded steering wheel covers can make a car seat feel like the cushiest of couches. You can also attach snap-on rear view mirror extender/adjustors to your side mirrors to ensure you don’t have to twist and shift to find your blind spots when changing lanes. You might also want to take advantage of your car’s built-in seat warmers, or bring along portable ice packs, to soothe any aches as you go.

Finally, the right water bottle is an important tool you might not consider—staying hydrated is key to keeping comfortable! If you have a hard time drinking enough plain water to get you through your drive, consider green tea, water with fruit or other flavoring added, or hydration packets.  This will give you a bit of variety while maximizing your hydration.


By planning ahead, keeping it moving, bringing the right tools, and taking advantage of your vehicle (or maybe even winning a new one!) your summer road trip should never be a pain!