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Before we start talking about travelling with back pain, let me first tell you I am a traveller (obviously,) a back pain sufferer AND a general practitioner doctor in the UK.

But I also need to stress that I am not YOUR doctor. Therefore if there is anything unusual about your back pain, you should consult your own doctor before travelling.

But today, we are talking travelling with lower back pain of non-serious origin. What I mean by that is anyone who gets aches and pains, stiffness and maybe even occasional sciatica pains in their legs.

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Travelling with a bad back - 30 tips for back pain sufferers from flying with back pain to back pain stretches to help improve your bad back. Tips from a doctor who travels with a bad back! #backpain

If your symptoms are more severe or unusual than that then it’s time to see your general practitioner. I’ll be talking about red flag symptoms in a bit…

My own experiences of travelling with back pain

My own story about back pain started when I was travelling in South East Asia 7 years ago. At the time, I was a relatively unexperienced backpacker and as such, over packed by a large margin.

Then when my camera broke on the road, I decided to get a new DSLR. Sadly there was another factory fault and I made the difficult decision to fork out for yet another DSLR (owch) as travelling without a camera as a photographer was just not an option for me. I then carried these 3 DSLRs and my many lenses and equipment for days until I found a post office to send them off for repairs.

My back was never the same from that point on.

Since then I have suffered chronic lower back ache with stiffness and occasional sciatica twinges. I’ve discovered after several trips to a chiropractor that the left side of my body is super flexible. The right side is about as flexible as a metal rod. Therefore muscular back pain is a common problem for me.

travelling with back pain woman in pain

I can’t lie, it does affect my travels and I often have to factor managing my back pain into activity planning and packing. I also know that the quality of mattress I sleep on has a huge effect and sometimes I’ll pay a little more for a decent hotel, particularly if I’ve been camping for a few days prior.

So with that in mind, I wanted to write an article that gives practical advice (from a medical practitioner) that you can trust to help you travel with back pain.

** Pssst, this article may contain affiliate links. If you have no idea what this means, click here and everything will be explained!**

Here are 30 tips for travelling with a bad back.

Flying with back pain

Long journeys sitting in a confined space in an upright position and long queues for airport security can make flying with back pain a nightmare. There are some things you can do to make flying with a bad back a little less awful!

Dealing with Airport queues with back pain

Avoid queuing as much as possible. Make use of online check-in or even upgrade to queue jump. Long queues at the airport often trigger my back pain before I even get to the destination. Remember it’s easier to prevent back pain than it is to treat it!

flying with back pain airport queues

When you are in an unavoidable queue, you can limit the back pain by engaging your core so your back doesn’t have to do as much work to hold you upright. Draw your stomach muscles inward and engage your buttock muscles like you would do if you wanted to appear thinner!

Managing back pain on the flight

Consider wearing a heat patch – these plasters stick onto your back and then generate heat which helps to prevent your muscles from going into spasm which often happens when you are inactive on a flight. I use these ones and am always amazed about how long the heat lasts for – sometimes more than 24 hours!

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Take a good travel pillow. I’d recommend a 3-in-1 pillow like this one which converts between a U-shaped neck pillow, a square pillow and a back support which you can use for regular sleeping or use to prop behind your back.

Make sure you stretch regularly. Set a reminder on your phone to get up at frequent periods throughout your flight, walk up and down the aisle and do a few gentle stretches. Try to touch your toes and slowly lean to each side running your arm down the corresponding leg. Arch you back and do a few shoulder rolls. Anything to get your muscles moving!

Thing to Consider when Planning Accommodation with back pain

Staying in a hotel with back pain

I’d recommend factoring in a comfy nights sleep at least every few days. It may not always be possible to stay in a comfy hotel particularly if you are travelling off the beaten track. But if you do have to camp or stay in hostels, make sure you book a comfy hotel whenever the opportunity arises.

travelling with back pain stay in a nice hotel

You could even splash out on a hotel with a jacuzzi – my back always feels so much better after a warm soak in a jacuzzi.

Staying in hostels with back pain

If you are staying in a hostel, contact them ahead of time to ask for a lower bunk bed. Trust me if you’ve spent the day walking around a city and your back is in pieces, the last thing you’ll want to do is climb a ladder to get into bed! Similarly, if you are going on a group tour then make sure you tell them about your back problem in advance.

Camping with a bad back

If you are going to be camping with a bad back, you need to invest in a good quality thermarest to sleep on. They may not be as cheap as a foam mat but trust me, it’s money spent well. They are also light and compact and many are self inflating. I have this one and I wouldn’t be without it.

Physical therapies for travellers with back pain

The most important thing is to stretch regularly. Try to get into a routine of stretching for 10 minutes every morning and evening and make sure you start several weeks before your trip so that your back is in peak condition.

travelling with back pain yoga mat

Be active! You may feel like crawling into bed when you have back pain but it is the absolute WORST THING YOU CAN DO! Your muscles will go into spasm and you will feel worse. Try to keep moving as much as you can. Even if thats just a gentle stroll.

Massage is your friend. In some countries it can also be super cheap. You can even book a massage in many airports these days. Try to factor in one massage every week if you can. It’ll be a godsend. But careful to go to reputable places and I’d suggest avoiding anything too unusual. I had someone walk on my back in Vietnam and it made it worse.

Consider trying accupuncture before you leave. It’s actually hard for me as a GP to advise this. Us doctors are scientific folk who like to understand WHY something works. The issue with accupuncture if that whilst there are many theories, we still do not fully understand why it works. Only that the evidence suggests it does work.

Some of my patients swear by it. I tried it once. It didn’t hurt though I’m not convinced it helped much but I’d say it’s worth a try at least…

Consider starting pilates or yoga. Do it in a class or at home, the choice is yours but both are proven to have great results for people with chronic muscular back pain.

travelling with back pain yoga on the beach

Swimming is one of the absolute best exercises for almost any muscle or joint problem. Its a gentle exercise which puts your muscles to work without putting any stress on your joints. It improves strength, muscle tone and cardiovascular health. Best thing is, its one of the easiest exercises to do on holiday be it in the hotel pool or in the sea!

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Packing when you have a bad back

This one is kinda obvious! Keep your luggage light! Don’t be like me carrying 3 DSLRs and 4 camera lenses. Be more sensible that I was!

Read More How to pack light for every occasion

Choose luggage with wheels. Don’t get me wrong, backpacks can be brilliant especially if you have a long way to walk with your luggage or you need to carry it upstairs. In an ideal world, you would find luggage that doubles as both like this one.

Pack your backpack properly. Usually making sure heavier items are in the centre of the bag so that more of the weight is taken by your hips. You can read more about how to pack your bag here.

ravelling with back pain heavy backpacks

Make sure you get measured up for your backpack and have someone alter the straps so that it fits comfortably and evenly distributes the weight.

Read More | The best carry-on backpacks

Medication to take when travelling with back pain

You may want to have a chat with your doctor about some pain medication to take in case your back gets bad when you’re away. Remember anything beyond Paracetamol or Ibuprofen should be discussed with your doctor as many can have side effects or interact with other medications you may be on. The following are pain killer options you may wish to discuss with your own general practitioner doctor.

  • Paracetamol. Usually the safest of painkillers as long as you don’t have pre-existing liver problems. It is safe when taken at recommended doses but it’s important you don’t exceed the dose as it can be dangerous in overdose. Paracetamol is easily accessible in most countries without a prescription.
  • Anti-inflammatories. Ibuprofen is the first anti-inflammatory you should try as it is the least toxic to your stomach. The anti-inflammatory benefits can also help your back problem heal faster. Make sure you take it with food as it can cause heartburn if taken on an empty stomach and in worst case scenarios, a stomach ulcer. If you start getting bad heartburn, see a doctor. You will also need to be cautious if you have any pre-existing kidney problems, heart problems or are on Warfarin. If Ibuprofen tablets don’t help, you can try Fenbid or Volatrol gel or the stronger Naproxen tablets. Naproxen is prescription only in the UK.
  • Opiate medications such as co-codamol. Try to keep these to a minimum and only use when required. Opiate-based medications can cause drowsiness, constipation and there is the risk of addiction and dependence. Only use these medications under your doctor’s guidance.
  • Amitriptyline is particularly good for nerve root pain such as sciatica. It’s taken once a day at night and makes you a little drowsy. It can interact with some medications (especially antidepressants,) so discuss it with your doctor first.

Remember there are other ways to relieve pain rather than always resorting to painkillers. The heat patches I mentioned above can be helpful as can the freeze gels such as Biofreeze which I use personally and find effective.

Coping on Road Trips with back pain

Try to share the driving if you can. Set a timer on your phone to remind you to stop frequently. Have a stretch, go for a little stroll. You could also consider wearing a heat patch like the ones we talked about earlier.

If you are taking a road trip and know you have a bad back, take this into consideration when planning your route. Plan lots of stops and try to limit your driving to a couple of hours in any given day.

If you are hiring a car, consider hiring one with heated seats. It’s a real luxury for anyone with a bad back!

Other things to consider when travelling with back pain

Consider getting up early when you travel and reaching the attractions before all the other tourists arrive. This way you can avoid long queues which may aggravate your back and you can walk around at a comfortable pace without crowds of people getting in your way. You can then spend your afternoons relaxing by the pool or taking a yoga class!

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Take a look at the shoes which you wear most often. Are they worn down more on one side than the other? If so, it could be a sign that you would benefit from an orthotic to keep your feet in a neutral position. Never underestimate the impact your feet can have on your other joints in your body including your back.

If a simple orthotic from the pharmacy isn’t helping, you may need to be measured for some orthotics made by a podiatrist.

Your posture can also have a big impact on your back pain. Try to avoid sitting in a slumped position. I’m guilty of this myself spending hours hunched over my computer screen….

Try to keep hydrated and get plenty of sleep. Your general well being has a huge impact on how you tolerate pain. If you are well rested, stress-free and well hydrated, you will cope with pain so much better.

Back pain (or pain in general) and depression can come hand in hand. Not only does depression have an impact on your pain threshold but also dealing with chronic pain can make you feel very low. It becomes a vicious circle. Being away from home can make you even more vulnerable.

travelling with back pain - women sad on beach

If you are feeling sad a lot, are having difficulty sleeping, concentrating or have lost your appetite and interest in social activities, it may be time to discuss how you are feeling with a doctor or even a friend or family member.

Reasons why you would need to consult a doctor about your back pain

Sometime it can be difficult to know if it’s necesary to see a doctor or not. Here’s a few reasons why you should see a doctor if you have persistent or unusual back pain…

  • If you are young. Persistent back pain in teenagers and young adults is uncommon. If your back pain started when you were young, you should get a doctor to check you out.
  • Your back pain is getting worse and is persistent for over 6 weeks. Studies show 90% of bad backs will spontaneously resolve in 6 weeks or less. If you’re in the 10 % which doesn’t, pop along to see your doctor.
  • If you get any unusual symptoms such as tingling in your fingers or legs, unexplained weight loss, unexplained abdominal pain or fevers, dizziness, involuntary loss of control of your bladder or bowels, lack of sensation in the perineal area or sudden weakness of your limbs. Also, for men, anyone with prostate symptoms like poor urine stream and going to the toilet more at night should get their back pain checked out as well as their prostate. These are all reasons to book an urgent appointment.

I hope you are now feeling more positive about travelling with back pain. It is absolutely possible and you may even feel better whilst you are away. I certainly did after my last long stint on the road. I was generally more active and of course I was spending far less time hunched over a computer. With some sensible precautions, I didn’t even need to take any pain killers.

travelling with back pain coup[le having a piggy back

So yes, go backpacking with back pain, you can do it safely and you may even start to notice some improvement in your health!

Do you have any tips for flying or travelling with back pain you can share with us? What works for you? Please join in the conversation by commenting below and I’ll get back to you asap!

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