Traveling with Sciatica
Tips to ward off low back and leg pain
Written by Kelly Rehan and Robert A. Hayden, DC, PhD, FICC
Flying and driving often mean long periods of sitting, and sitting is a position typically not friendly with sciatica pain.
How do you prevent sciatica from flaring up when you’re on the road or in the air? The simple answer is to find ways to keep moving.
Try as it might, sciatica doesn’t have to prevent you from doing the things you love—including traveling. However, the journey may pose its own set of challenges for people with sciatic nerve pain in their low back and leg.
“Flying and driving mean long periods of sitting, and sitting is a position typically not friendly with sciatic pain,” said Dr. Robert Hayden, DC, PhD, an American Chiropractic Association (ACA) media spokesperson and chiropractor in Griffin, GA.
Below, Dr. Hayden shared some simple tips for staying mobile—and pain free—while flying and driving with sciatica. He also offered additional advice to keep your radiating leg pain from spoiling your plans once you reach your destination.
Special note: Before embarking on your trip, even if it’s a short flight or road trip, always check with your treating physician to ensure it’s safe for you travel.
Taking Care in the Air: Tips for Flying with Sciatica
Sciatica pain radiates through the lower body—from the low back to the hips, buttocks, and down the legs. This means that flights that anchor you to an airline seat can aggravate your pain.
The first thing to consider when flying with sciatica is your seat choice. Choosing an aisle seat will allow you the easiest access out of your seat, allowing you to move more during your flight.
Dr. Hayden said that when flying with sciatica, don’t shy away from telling the flight crew about your condition. They’ll help you understand when it’s safe to get up out of your seat and will allow you to stretch your legs in the airplane galley, where there’s more room to move around.
“As soon the cabin crew will allow, slip out and walk to the restroom facility or galley,” Dr. Hayden recommends. “The cabin crew have seen people with this condition before, and they will usually let you do a couple of stretches in the galley area if they are not busy serving.
A good sciatica stretch you can do in flight is to put your hands on something stable, like a bulkhead, and do some deep knee bends, Dr. Hayden said. This will use your upper body weight to stretch your lumbar spine (your low back) comfortably.
“After a few deep knee bends, you can return to your seat feeling refreshed,” he said. “On a long flight, do this every hour, and you will feel better when you land.”
Steering Clear of Leg Pain on a Road Trip
When you’re on a road trip, it’s easy to concentrate on your driving and forget how much you are hurting until your thigh and leg pain become too much to bear. Dr. Hayden said frequent stops—ideally after each hour of driving—is the best way to prevent sciatica pain from sneaking up on you.
“Get out of the car and walk two or three laps around the vehicle,” Dr. Hayden said. “I like to use the rear bumper as a prop. Placing one foot on the bumper, and the other about two feet behind you, lean into the bumper, squaring your hips with the lead foot. This will look like a hurdler stretch.”
Dr. Hayden said to make sure you stretch both legs each time you take a break. Taking regular stretch breaks will help relieve the pressure in your low back, so that you can drive comfortably for another hour.
You’ve Arrived: 3 Products and 1 Piece of Advice to Keep Sciatica Pain at Bay
Packing light is a good general tip regardless of how you travel, as hauling a heavy piece of luggage may aggravate your sciatic nerve pain. However, there are a few things that Dr. Hayden recommends you pack (or pick up after you arrive) to keep pain from returning when you reach your destination.
The first is a small gel pack that you can keep in the refrigerator or freezer in a hotel room. Dr. Hayden said applying the cold pack to your low back for 20-minute increments will go a long way toward relieving pain.
The second product is a topical agent (eg, a cream or gel) that contains menthol or camphor, which you may apply to any areas of tenderness or pain before using the ice pack.
“This will potentiate the ice,” Dr. Hayden said. “Not only will it feel good, it will help relax muscles and decrease local pain.”
The third product, which is especially important for year-round travel, is a pair of supportive shoes. Dr. Hayden suggested that people with sciatica choose footwear that supports all three arches of your feet.
“Sometimes, leg length is not equal from side to side, and a good arch support can be crafted for you by your chiropractor that compensates for differential leg length,” Dr. Hayden said. “Studies show that 5 mm difference in leg length—and that is not much distance—can result in chronic back pain. So, take care of your feet in the shoes you wear from season to season.”
Dr. Hayden shared a final piece of advice that may come in handy after you arrive: Ask your chiropractor or other treating physician if they may recommend someone in the area that you will be visiting in case you need emergency care.
“That will give you some peace of mind,” he said.
Don’t Let Your Routine Veer too Far from Home
When traveling, it’s easy to let the good lifestyle habits you practice at home slide. A healthy diet, sound sleep, and plenty of physical activity are sciatica’s natural enemies—make sure to bring these healthy practices with you to your destination.
“Use the same good sense when you travel that you would at home with getting plenty of rest, drinking plenty of water, and trying not to overeat,” Dr. Hayden advised. “If anything, you will need more rest when you are traveling, so take that into consideration. Walk, stretch, and stay mobile.”
Updated on: 06/25/19