Most of us will do some traveling over the holidays. Traveling even for a few hours by car can be hard on the body, and long-distance travel can flare up many chronic orthopedic and medical conditions—causing new problems for many travelers. As is true in so many areas of life, an ounce or two of prevention while traveling can help to keep the holiday season joyful rather than frustrating and painful. Here are six simple steps you can take to minimize the stress of travel on your body:
Much of the low-back pain and other joint and body stiffness that we feel after traveling comes from sitting still in cramped and sometimes awkward spaces and positions for extended lengths of time. If you are on a plane, bus, boat or train, and you can get up and walk around, then do so. Set a timer on your watch or phone for 30 minutes, and get up and move for three to five minutes every half-hour. Find an excuse to walk up and down the aisle of the plane or bus—take a bathroom or water break, look for a magazine, ask the flight attendant a question, etc. While up, do some light stretching, touch your toes, and do a few toe raises to contract your calves and flush the blood flow throughout your legs and feet. Be subtle and don’t attract the attention of the federal air marshals, but try to move all of your major joints and stretch your major muscles for at least a few seconds at each walkabout. You will be amazed at how much less stiff, fatigued and logy you will feel at the end of your journey if you get up and move frequently while on your way.
- Pack lightly.
Every year in my office I see several patients who have hurt their backs and shoulders by carrying and lifting heavy luggage. Lifting a heavy “carry-on” bag from the ground up to an overhead bin, or getting it back down from overhead, is a common mechanism of injury for backs and shoulders. Carrying large suitcases through airports, hoisting them on and off buses and in and out of cars, etc., are common ways to strain muscles and tendons—and ruin a vacation. It is very common to not even know that you have injured yourself until you wake up the next morning and find that your back is in a vice or you can’t lift your arm overhead without severe pain. Think about all of the ways and times you will have to handle your luggage on your trip, and make sure you can lift it comfortably before leaving home. If you can’t, leave those extra shoes, clothes and heavy items behind—or, if they are really necessary, mail them ahead of time to your destination. When you do lift, use good technique: keep the item close to your body, keep your back straight, lift with your legs, and don’t try to control a heavy object overhead while the plane or bus is moving or unstable.
- Maintain good posture.
“Don’t slouch,” your mother may have told you. Well, she was right. Sitting for hours in a car or on a plane with poor lumbar support and poor posture is a perfect recipe for a stiff back. Mix in some heavy and awkward luggage lifting after such sitting, and you have all of the ingredients needed for a back or neck injury. Airplane seats have terrible lumbar support; bring a lumbar roll with you, or roll up an airplane blanket or pillow and tuck it into the small of your back to give support to your poor lumbar spine. Don’t fall asleep in awkward positions with your head tilted and unsupported. Bring a small, supportive neck pillow with you if you plan to snooze. Try to maintain a neutral alignment and avoid twisting and asymmetry while sleeping (easier said than done).
- Do isometric exercises.
No matter where you are sitting, even as the driver of a car, you can do isometric exercises. An isometric exercise engages a muscle or muscle group without any movement—basically you push or pull against something that does not move. You can easily push or pull against yourself. Put your palms together and push, and you are doing an isometric exercise. Now link your fingertips together and pull, and you are doing another isometric exercise using entirely different muscles. You can exercise any muscle group in the body this way. You can give yourself a mild or intense workout, depending on how hard you push or pull and how long you hold the pose. You can start down at your feet, working your feet and ankles in every way you can think of, and then gradually move north toward your head. Every time you do an exercise, try next to do the opposite movement. If you hold each exercise for 10 seconds, you can easily work out for 15 to 30 minutes or longer before you run out of ideas. Do two or three sets and you might find that you have reached your destination and have a good sweat going.
- Prevent blood clots.
One of the most serious risks of sitting still on long trips is the risk of developing a blood clot in the leg or thigh. If you follow the recommendations listed above, you will dramatically reduce your risk of developing a clot, or deep vein thrombosis (DVT) as it is also known. If you do not follow the above recommendations, at least contract and relax your buttock, thigh and calf muscles frequently, flex and extend your ankles and knees, and fidget in your seat. Try not to sit with your leg tucked underneath you for long periods of time. Such a position can constrict veins, restricting blood flow and increasing chances of developing a DVT. DVTs are more common in people who are smokers, those on birth-control pills, patients being treated for active cancer, and those who have had recent trauma, surgery or immobilization. Flexing your calves, moving frequently and staying hydrated can greatly reduce the risk of forming a blood clot. Blood clots can form in the legs and then break loose and travel to the lungs, heart or brain, where they can cause death or severe disability. They should not be taken lightly. A swollen and painful leg or thigh after travel is a warning sign of a possible DVT.
- Relax and breathe.
Start with your toes, and slowly and consciously relax every muscle and joint in your body. Maintain good posture while you do this. Breathe slowly and deeply, feeling the breath fill your lungs and then release—again and again. Clear your mind of extraneous stresses and worries. Feel the peace of being still, quiet and in the moment. With the right mindset and some practice, even the most crowded plane, bus or car can be a place for tranquility and restoration.
Happy and safe travels this holiday season!
This holiday greeting is brought to you by your friends at Sharon Health Center.