Back Pain while Driving

Listening to the travel reports on the radio, it sounds like a lot of you are heading off to various gorgeous locations around the country for your summer holidays.  Of course, that often means you sit in the car for hours at a time, either just to get to your distant destination or in miles and miles of queues.

Not surprisingly, this brings an increase in the number of people who show up at my clinic complaining that their back hurts when they are in the car.  Usually it affects the lower back, though sometimes neck and shoulders can join the pain party as well.  But why does this happen?

Well the first, and I think most important, thing to point out is that the human body is simply not designed to stay in any one place or position for more than about 20 minutes.  Our current lifestyle habits of spending 8 hours a day in the office, or sitting for 3 hours non-stop in the car is never going to be good for your spine.  So before I even start trying to address the problems with seats, pedals and posture in the car I will always strongly point out that even with the perfect set-up in the car, a back that has never given you any trouble for a day in your life and the best core strength in the world, you are simply not going to be able to make the journey from the Midlands to the South Coast non-stop without causing yourself some considerable discomfort.

Regular rest breaks are therefore the way to go.  They don’t have to be long, and involve expensive trips to the service station coffee shop, but getting out of your car at least once an hour (preferably every 30 mins) and walking around it a few times before continuing with your journey will bring in huge rewards as far as pain is concerned.

Despite this, though, pain is often worse after an hour in the car than it would be after an hour sat in the office.  One of the reasons for this is car seats.  They’re awful.  When I bought my car, I decided to try and practice what I preached, and about the only optional extra I elected to pay for was additional lumbar support in the driver’s seat.  And it is useless.  It’s in the wrong place, it’s almost totally impossible to get just the right amount of support and if you leave it active when you get out, you’ll find yourself just sitting further forwards in the seat the next time you get in.  None of the other cars I have ever sat in have been much better – varying degrees of comfort in the seat, but the actual postural correctness they help support is usually around nil.

So, when you get in to your car, here are a few things you can do to help yourself as much as possible.  First, make sure you are sat as far back in the seat as possible, hard up against the back rest.  Also, make sure you are central on the seat – the tendency is to sit slightly over to the door side of the car, meaning you are actually on the angled part of the squab and therefore putting a curve in your spine as your body struggles to remain upright.

A small amount of lumbar support should be added just below waist level – a small hand towel rolled up is more than adequate for this task.  The back rest should be almost vertical; a slight backward lean is acceptable, but it must only be slight!

Finally, make sure your seat is drawn far enough forwards that when you have the clutch pressed fully to the floor you still have a slight bend in your knee.  If your steering wheel is adjustable, it should be close enough that your elbows are almost at 90o with your upper arm angled just slightly in front of your body while your shoulders are drawn back and down against the back rest.

Finally it is worth mentioning things you can’t change, but which will have an effect.  In some cars, particularly those which are designed as left hand drive and then converted for use on our roads, the pedals actually end up off centre.  This means no matter how perfectly you set yourself up, you will be forced into a twisted posture in order to reach the pedals.  As I say, nothing can be done about this, but recognising it can help you appreciate how important posture and rest breaks are!