Physical Therapy Advice: Avoiding Aches and Pains During Holiday Travel

Air Date:
Heard On The Larry Meiller Show

Thanksgiving weekend is the highest travel period of the year. Larry Meiller finds out how you can be more comfortable in the car or on a plane as you get to your holiday gathering.

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  • Experts Offer Tips For Comfortable Holiday Travels

    The period between Thanksgiving and the end of the year is full of travel for many people. Whether it’s driving to see family or maybe flying to a fun vacation destination, many will be sitting in vehicles more than usual.

    Arriving at the destination with aches, pains and discomfort is no fun. But, physical therapists Lori Thein Brody and Bill Boissonnault said that people can travel comfortably and arrive in good shape with a little thought and preparation.

    “Your trip starts when you get in the car, not when you arrive at your destination,” Brody said.

    She is a physical therapist and athletic trainer with the University of Wisconsin Sports Medicine and Spine Center, as well as the graduate program director for the Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions in Provo, Utah. Brody recommends people think about the trip itself as the best first step to take. She suggests people not dread the travel time, or to think of it only as the means to get where they’re headed.

    “The drive can be part of the experience, whether it’s listening to books on tape or planning stops on the way of things you’d like to see,” she said. “Giving yourself extra time so you’re not frantically feeling rushed, like you have to get somewhere. So, give yourself extra time, take more time, and stop more frequently.”

    Boissonnault is a professor at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health and senior physical therapist at the Spine Center Physical Therapy Clinic of the UW Hospital and Clinics. He agreed with Brody’s advice, saying that taking that extra time and making ourselves comfortable can help avoid the “cramped and cranky syndrome.”

    Boissonnault added that those breaks during the drive are really important physically.

    “Even if they’re just for 10 minutes, get out, walk, and stretch a little bit,” he said.

    He added those breaks are also a great opportunity to change the position of the seat. Moving it slightly closer or farther away from the steering wheel or dashboard, or changing the incline of the back of a seat will ensure that person isn’t in exactly the same position for hours at a time.

    “Just changing the position of your spine makes for a happier spine by the end of the trip,” he said.

    Traveling by air is similar, but there are differences as well. Brody recommends that if a person arrives at the gate early enough, they can use that time to walk around the airport for a little exercise and to keep muscles loose.

    Brody added, “Sometimes people stare at me, but I like to stretch before I get on the plane. Otherwise, I’m so stiff when I get off.”

    Airplane seats aren’t designed for comfort, Boissonnault said. They often force a person into a position that can cause stiffness and pain. He recommended finding a small pillow to put behind the small of the back to give it support and to prevent those muscles from getting fatigued. But, just like during the car trips, changing that position is good, too. Boissonnault said to remove and reposition the pillow every 30 minutes or so.

    Ensuring proper circulation while seated can also help muscles to stay happy during a flight. Brody suggested a variety of small movements while in a seat. Toes lifts, flexing and pointing the feet, drawing the knees up and the lowering them are all beneficial. Those are especially useful when a person is forced to stay in the seat at the start and end of a flight, she said.

    If a person is a traveler who tends to doze off on a plane, Boissonnault said to invest in a neck support, like a collar pillow.

    “It will help to keep your neck in an upright and neutral position,” he said. Otherwise, a person is likely to wake up with a stiff neck or worse.

    In a pinch, Brody added, someone can use a rolled up jacket in place of a neck pillow, or as a support for your back.

    “If you plan on that, that can be helpful,” she said.

    Finally, stowing and recovering luggage is another opportunity for injury. Boissonnault reminded people to be careful when they’re trying to lift a heavy piece of carry-on luggage into an overhead bin. And make sure that when they’re retrieving a suitcase from the luggage carousel, they’re lifting with the legs and not straining the back.

    Brody also suggested that what a person eats, especially over Thanksgiving, can help or hurt on the return trip.

    “If you’re eating a lot of salt you may have more fluid retention, and that can make you more uncomfortable,” she said. “So, really being thoughtful about what you’re eating and how that may impact your comfort on your return trip is also important.”

Episode Credits

  • Larry Meiller Host
  • Judith Siers-Poisson Producer
  • Bill Boissonnault Guest
  • Lori Thein Brody Guest