As someone that has had a back injury for the last 10 years, I know exactly how it feels to have lower back pain from driving.
In this article, I am going to give you 7 simple tips on how to reduce or remove back pain from driving.
In fact, these are the tips I used whilst on my massive road trip around Europe. Whether you’ve lower back pain or have been driving with sciatica, read on and give these tips a try.
I’ll be discussing the best vehicles, seating position, lower back stretches, and lumbar support for driving. It’s really important to know the best driving position for back pain.
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Best Seating Position To Avoid Back Pain From Driving
The seating position is the most important piece of advice in this article so I’ve done my best to explain it as thoroughly as I can!
Poor posture and sitting still for long periods of time are the primary reasons why driving causes back pain.
Whilst driving, the aim should be to have a straight back and to distribute your weight evenly across the seat. Read these key points on the best driving position for back pain.
Seat Positioning – Key Points
- Sit with your back upright against the seat. It should be adjusted to about 100 degrees. Do not recline further as it will result in slouching or poor posture.
- Sit with your shoulders and head back to lengthen your spine.
- Ensure your bottom is pushed back into the seat to support the natural S shape of the spine.
- Try to position the base of the seat flat/ slightly downward angled and high off the floor so that your thighs are supporting some of your weight.
- Try to bend your knees at a right angle (or slight angle) if possible. It’s good if your feet can support some of your weight.
- Sit with your breastbone at least 10 inches from the steering wheel. Try to have a right angle bend in your elbows and a comfortable position when holding the wheel.
The most important point is to ensure that the base of the seat is not positioned at an upward angle such that your knees are much higher than your hips. This causes slouching and puts an uneven amount of pressure onto the base of your back and your pelvic area.
Keep your knees only slightly higher than your hips
Your knees should only be slightly higher than your hips.
Here you can see an image of me doing my best to have a great seating position. However, I am very tall so I can’t quite sit fully upright. As you can see though, my thighs are supporting my weight and I am sitting up straight.
Sit up straight with your back against the seat
In order to sit up straight, make sure your back is against the seat and your chin is tucked in. Have the seat mostly upright and avoid slouching as this puts more pressure on your lower back. the seat should make contact with your body from your buttocks to your shoulders.
Your shoulders should be back and two arms out in front of you onto the wheel. Although slouching may be more comfortable in the short term, it’s one of the biggest causes of back pain from driving!
Avoid sitting on anything
Make sure you aren’t sitting on anything like your phone or wallet. This will alter your seating position which can contribute to back pain. Remove everything from your back pockets!
Distance from the steering wheel
Sit with your breastbone at least 10 inches away from the steering wheel and your hands on the sides (9 and 3).
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Lumbar Support for Driving
If your vehicle has soft seats that are not providing enough support then the issue is that you can sink into them. This will put more pressure on your lower back and can cause back pain whilst driving.
If this is the case, you could consider a lumbar support pillow that fits at the base of your back and provides additional comfort.
Lower Back Stretches
I have found stretching, yoga, and mobility exercises have benefited me greatly over the years. If I know I am going to be spending a long time in the car I will ensure I do 10-15 minutes of stretching in the morning after waking up.
The aim is to relieve stiffness in the muscles. If you enter your vehicle with some stiffness already built up in your body you are more likely to be pushed over the edge into the pain zone from a long stint driving.
Here is a video with some of the stretches I like to do in the morning. I particularly recommend number 2 which is lying flat on your back with double knees to the chest.
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Choose the Right Vehicle
If you are someone that suffers from back pain when driving then your choice of car is very important. Having owned a BMW coupe and a KIA SUV, I can say the difference in my back pain is night and day. The key difference with a larger vehicle like an SUV is the ability to have enough headroom to sit up straight.
It’s also important to make sure your vehicle is properly maintained. Replacing worn-out tires and shock absorbers will ensure the journey is as smooth as possible.
Look for vehicles with high seat ground clearance
Additionally, you may recall me saying that having your knees much higher than your hips leads to slouching which is a primary cause of back pain. In order to avoid this, it’s crucial to find a vehicle where the base of the seat is at a high enough elevation to allow you to sit with your legs mostly flat on the seat! This allows some of your weight to be distributed onto your thighs as opposed to being focused in the lower back/pelvic area.
In smaller cars, the issue is that if you are tall you will often not be able to sit properly without having your legs raised.
Another limiting factor can be headroom. It’s no use having good seat ground clearance if there isn’t enough headroom for you to sit up straight. This will just lead to more slouching!
These cars can seem very comfortable at first due to the slouching effect and/or squashy seats but over time back pain can creep in with a vengeance.
Therefore, make sure you choose a vehicle with sufficient headroom for you.
Whilst squashy seats may seem comfortable at first. They can be a devil in disguise for a back pain sufferer. What is really important to alleviate back pain from driving is to have great support such that your weight is evenly distributed.
The issue with squashy seats is that you tend to sink into them which puts more pressure onto the small of your back and less onto your thighs and feet.
If you don’t have firm seats in your car you could consider lumbar support such as this one.
Easily adjustable seats
Look for vehicles that have firm seats that are easily adjustable. After all, each person is different. If there are multiple drivers using the vehicle it’s important that you can easily adjust the seats to the right seating position for you.
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Take Regular Breaks
When you are sitting still for a long period of time this can cause muscle stiffness, which contributes to back pain from driving. That’s why it’s important to schedule frequent breaks as part of your journey to get the muscles moving.
If you tend to get tired while driving you can also check out my article on How To Stay Awake While Driving.
Do light exercise during breaks
Whilst on a break, try to do some light exercise such as a walk or the stretches discussed earlier in this article.
When I’m doing a long road trip I try to look for somewhere interesting to stop off for lunch or dinner. That way I can take a walk around instead of just going in and out of a service station.
If you’re road-trippin’ somewhere that has an IKEA, this can be a great option! You are often forced to walk through the entire store after having lunch in the restaurant.
Alter Your Position Occasionally
Even if you’ve mastered the perfect seating position, I would still recommend moving around occasionally in your seat. Sometimes you need to put some miles in and there is only a certain amount of breaks you can take to really stretch your legs. Try occasionally moving to a different seating position to avoid excessive muscle stiffness which can lead to back pain.
Move your legs
If you have cruise control you can also move your legs around a little to try and ensure good circulation.
If you are someone that suffers from varicose veins, consider some compression socks to help with this whilst driving.
Hot or Cold Therapy
This involves using either an ice pack or a hot pack to alleviate the symptoms of back pain from driving. You should only do this for a short period of time, always read the instructions before applying!
You can purchase these packs from your local pharmacy. Another option is to use a hot water bottle or wrap some frozen veg in a towel!
Cold therapy can lead to a reduction in inflammation which may provide relief.
Hot packs, on the other hand, can increase blood flow to the area. This can be particularly helpful if your muscles are very stiff. You could use a warm pack in combination with some stretching, yoga or light exercise during a break.
It’s important to understand that both of these treatments are for short term relief. Prolonged use may cause damage to the skin if they are over-applied so ensure you follow the instructions. It might be best to use them during one of your scheduled breaks so you can monitor your skin.
Back Pain From Driving – When To Seek Medical Help
If back pain is causing you persistent issues I would recommend going and speaking to your doctor about it. For some people, it might be advisable to use anti-inflammatory or other medication to alleviate the symptoms.
Here is a great information page by the NHS, detailing what circumstances you should seek assistance.
Personally, these are the five top things that improved my symptoms:
- Doing regular stretches and light yoga
- Improved seating position
- Moving regularly and not sitting still for hours at a time
If you have any tips or tricks on how to alleviate back pain from driving, let us know in the comments!