Traveling With Lower Back Pain – From Someone Who Broke His Back

Ecuador Latitude Line

Five years ago, I was involved in a boat accident in St. Maarten and I broke my back. As a travel writer, I have obviously learned the best I can in traveling with lower back pain, since it’s my job. But before I even get into it, this is what happened in that crazy accident.

Aboard Captain Alan’s speed boat, the skipper set out against waters so choppy he never should have been taking us out in the first place. Before it was too late, we hit a rogue wave that flung me high in the air, and I landed right on my butt, hearing a crack.

As you can imagine, it totally was not great.

The Resorts & Residences by CuisinArt
Rendezvous Bay, Anguilla, CuisinArt Golf Resort & Spa

Several passengers suffered minor injuries, but I literally broke my back. (The sad part is that Captain Alan’s did nothing to help—the laws are different under Dutch jurisdiction—so everyone injured that day had a rude awakening. That’s a whole other story.).

In the end, I fractured my spine (which healed) and I still have two herniated discs and degenerative disc disorder from the accident (these are long term). It’s the worst setback for a travel writer considering the number of long flights I take, long dinners, lifting heavy suitcases, constant commuting, constantly sitting at a desk in front of my laptop, etc. I had to significantly adjust the way I traveled, though I’m just one of millions — and it affects many who are traveling with lower back pain.

Why you should seek advice for traveling with lower back pain

According to the American Chiropractic Association, 60 to 80 percent of adult Americans suffer from lower back pain, and it’s the number two reason why people see doctors. From sprains and strains to ruptured disks, chronic lower back pain can prevent people from taking their dream vacation or make commutes a nightmare for business travelers.

It took time to comfortably master long-haul flights, and I discovered some incredible ways to help alleviate back pain when I travel. Considering I take an average four flights a month and/or drive long distances, I really had no choice—but it’s been incredibly helpful. I listed several ways travelers can comfortably travel with lower back pain.

I do want to show you that I also bought this chair to sit in at home. Ergonomic chairs are always better for people with lower back pain, so feel free to read my review. If you do buy it, I left the link on Amazon right here 🙂

8 tips on how to travel with lower back pain

1) Don’t fly economy on flights more than four hours.

Jason and I are on our best behavior… or are we? 🙂

If there’s a way you can avoid economy on long-haul flights, do whatever you can to make this happen. Use miles, pay, learn how to hypnotize gate agents, whatever. You don’t want to sit in coach.

My doctor gave me strict orders not to take flights more than four hours in economy as sitting for a prolonged period puts a massive amount of stress and pressure on your spine. I can barely take long transcontinental flights without serious discomfort after landing. If you fly long distance, most airlines now offer lie-flat seats in business class that significantly reduces the pressure. If you must fly coach on long-haul flights, strategically plan to fly when the cabin is not full so you may be able to get your own row to lie down rather than sit. You won’t believe the difference this makes, and it has worked wonders for me.

Also, take an aisle seat so you can get up and walk around at your leisure without annoying your seatmates. While I haven’t done so, I’ve heard bringing a medical letter to the flight crew can help accommodate you better. It might actually work better than hypnotism.

Also, note that premium economy on long-haul flights is not any better than coach. The seats typically recline a little more, but your spine endures the same level of pressure and stress. I learned this the hard way when I once flew premium economy from Los Angeles to Hanoi, Vietnam. I couldn’t walk for two days after landing. In any case, lesson learned, and a valuable tip on traveling with lower back pain.

Thanks to lie-flat seats, business class is the way to go when you travel. Here I am on American Airlines’ 777-300.

2) Focus on mobilizing your hips and glutes every day on vacation.

Four Seasons Downtown NY Gym
Four Seasons Downtown NY Gym

Stretching and light glute activity greatly help hip mobility after a flight or long drive, and it can prevent symptoms from flaring. Definitely keep the focus on your hips and glutes.

On a recent trip to One & Only Reethi Rah in the Maldives, I was stoked to learn that the resort partners with Bodyism, a London-based health and fitness facility known for its success with spine and joint injuries (and also works with A-list clients like Elle McPherson). I booked a private training session with Jamie Wendt, director of Bodyism global and performance specialist.

Considering Maldives is such a long haul, Jamie typically sees one out of three guests who arrive with back problems. “Back prehabilitation—a plan to prevent possible injuries—is the secret to avoiding back pain while traveling,” Jamie says. “Vacationers need to make sure they mobilize their hips and upper back and strengthen their glutes and core. Getting the hip and upper back mobile can take pressure off the lower back after a long flight or sitting at a desk all day. We make sure our clients switch on the glutes and core to take pressure off the back.”

BTW: This is one of my favorite back braces (yes I have several). It’s less than $50 on Amazon, one of the cheaper good ones I found.

While the “Superman” and hip extensions are common exercises for chronic back pain sufferers, Jamie showed me simple exercises that my physical therapist never did, including the Y and T (standing in a high squat and raising your arms forward and above so your body forms a Y or T, repeating each 10 times).

If you have a bad back, you really should learn how to travel with lower back pain, so hopefully you incorporate exercises.

He’s no Henry Cavill, but…

3) Travel as light as possible. 

Zadún, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, Los Cabos, Mexico
Zadún, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, Los Cabos, Mexico

When I travel, I generally carry a backpack for my laptop, notebook, toiletries,  basically anything I could fit in it. Since my accident, I bought a smaller backpack to help slash the load from my shoulders for less impact on my lower back.

I currently use the Hercules Laptop Bag by ECBC, a slim, water-repellant backpack that’s still in great shape after two years. My current physical therapist also suggested I make the straps super tight and fitted, so it doesn’t weigh down hard. Great suggestion! I’m still doing it.

Luggage should also be light. Sure, they may have wheels, but consider how many times you lift it during a trip (putting it in an overhead bin on a flight, placing it on a luggage rack in your hotel room, etc). While I’m at it, lift with your legs, not your back! If you do have a bad back and need to travel, definitely be careful! It’s why I really would like you to carry light, and it’s one of the best ways on traveling with lower back pain.

EC BC backpack.

4. Use your jacket or sweater as a pillow when traveling with lower back pain.

You can’t rely on airlines’ pillows as they offer little comfort these days, and it’s not always comfortable wearing a back brace (this one by Sparthos is great if you need one).

I have my own special pillow for sitting but also helpful is a jacket or thick sweater for back support (feel free to take your own pillow too, but don’t leave it on the plane! I used to do that all the time). The lumbar support truly helps cushioning, straightens the spine, prevents slouching and alleviates pressure.

This is the bear pillow I always travel with (it definitely stands out so I no longer leave the pillow on planes!). If you’re good at leaving things on planes, get a bear pillow. Or use your jacket or sweater.

5. Check into a wellness resort for your vacation.

One of the best trips I’ve ever taken was to Chiva Som Health Institute just two hours outside of Bangkok, Thailand. The wellness resort Chiva Som is world renowned for its health, fitness and wellness programs, so I wanted to see how it could “fix” me. I didn’t expect a miracle, but I nearly got one.

Guests pick a themed wellness plan, and I chose Optimal Performance, which helps those recovering from accidents and injuries. Every day, I had one-on-one physiotherapy, a massage and a program tailored to my condition, including kinesthetics, gyrotonic and neuromuscular activation.

It was the first time since my accident I can remember waking up without any back pain. While the trip involved plenty of physical therapy, it was still a vacation. Chiva Som has all the features of a resort with a beachside location, relaxing pool, excellent Western and Thai cuisine, and an amazing spa. Out of the dozen wellness resorts I’ve visited in the past few years, it was the most effective for my back.

I also spent a week at Ananda in the Himalayas, which is Oprah’s favorite resort, and again, no back pain for weeks!

Chiva Som, a wellness resort that I included in this story for Passport magazine.

6. Make time for Pilates.

For years, I was taking free yoga classes at hotels whenever possible for that great stretch. But strong advice from authorities steered me to Pilates.

Pilates helps strengthen muscles, improves flexibility and toughens your core. Every time I take a Pilates class, I let the instructor aware of my two herniated discs so, during the class, he/she can advise me on alternative positions when something might be too risky for my back. Because Pilates is so core-focused, it naturally helps spine health and posture, which has an impact on your back.

Pilates isn’t offered frequently at hotels and resorts, though concierge has directed me to nearby facilities and even gyms that charge a nominal one-time fee. I don’t recommend downloading Pilates exercise videos or practicing it on your own if you’re not experienced. Either way, Pilates is great to help traveling with lower back pain.

Also, I’ve used this back brace below as well for shorter trips. Again, very affordable.

Stretch it out.

7. Mind your diet when traveling with lower back pain.

I’m a firm believer that you don’t truly visit a destination without exploring the culinary scene. Food is part of the culture. But I still try to balance out my meals with healthy items. Obviously, I’m going straight for that steak in Argentina, street food in Thailand and pasta in Italy but always in moderation.

“Diet can indirectly have an affect on your back,” says Bodyism’s Jamie Wendt. “Eating the incorrect foods can cause inflammation and lower intestinal bloating, which can switch off your core and result in an overused, sore back.”

Minimize the intake of high-carb and processed foods, both of which fuel inflammation. One thing that also helps, especially in tropical destinations, is easing back on water. It’s beneficial to drink tons of water while traveling but I like to offset the water bloat by eating cucumbers and tomatoes, both of which are 95 percent water.

Mmmmm, delicious. But probably best to avoid heavy foods while you travel (in moderation).

8) Get thyself to a pool.

If I’m not traveling to a coastal destination, I like to book hotels that have swimming pools. Swimming is the first thing I do right off the plane. It helps mobility, strengthens the back and the buoyancy of the water takes stress off the joints. I’m by no means a professional swimmer, but moving around is better than sitting around!

So that’s it! If you have a bad back and need to travel, these are my tips on traveling with lower back pain. I hope they helped!

The pool at Kimpton Aertson in Nashville was perfect to do some physical therapy.

The pool at Kimpton Aertson in Nashville was perfect to do some physical therapy.

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Jimmy Im has traveled to 113 countries, stayed at over 600 hotels and clocked millions of air miles. He currently lives in New York City.

3 thoughts on “Traveling With Lower Back Pain – From Someone Who Broke His Back

  1. Hi Jimmy, your tips were great! i am planning to travel soon but i am very concerned about flying so many hours. I have a lumbar herniated disc; actually i am dealing with a sharp pain focus in the right side of L5S1 since October 2020. I am doing PT, stretches, and so on, but the pain has not gone yet, it is still there. Some days the pain is mild, others the pain is intense, it feels like spasms and this sometimes makes me feel kind of frustrated. If you can share an exercise daily routine of how to deal with this pain will be great! thanks!

    1. Thanks Rosa! I literally feel your pain… and sorry this has been occurring! Honestly, stretching is the most I find helpful daily, but long, deep stretches. I also find that going on regular walks helps (versus staying motionless). While many doctors have told me to avoid yoga, i find that it does help (very light poses, nothing intense)…but everyone is different. I hope it helps and best of luck! Jimmy

  2. Jimmy, that is a bloody awesome article mate. I too have chronic lower back issues and when I travel it can play havoc unless I do the right things. Totally spot on with avoiding coach class where possible. I have a different injury which affects my legs a lot so I’ve found a bulkhead or exit seat is a bit better because I can stretch out, but totally agree about the pressure it still puts on the back.
    You want to know one of the worst experiences I had? When I went to NYC the transfer took 4 hours! When I got out of that mini bus I could hardly move for hours.
    Anyway I’ve got a website dedicated to improving the beds in hotels by allowing travelers to rank the bed they slept on as well as telling if it’s soft or hard and foam or inner spring, so that others may find the right bed for them.
    I also write blog posts on travel and back pain and I’m very proud of this one on Finding the Right Mattress for Back Pain:
    Using journal articles to find out what has been tried and tested by world class researchers. I’d love if you’d give it a read and please feel free to link to it or any other posts on there if you think it might add value to your readers. If not, no problem, I’ll still be seeking out your articles to read.
    Cheers, Matty Hayter (Rate Hotel Beds)

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