Some people love them, and others, well, let’s just say road trips are not a favorite. But no matter which camp you’re in, it seems the pandemic has made road trips inevitable for many of us.
Besides paying attention to mask mandates, six-foot distances, and frequent handwashing, also consider your joints and muscles as you travel.
Driving or riding in a car can be a real pain in the sciatic nerve.
If you’re prone to sciatica, you know sitting in one position for hours can cause weakness, numbness, tingling, and sometimes sharp, piercing discomfort that reaches from your buttocks to the sole of your foot.
The large fibers of your sciatic nerve travel down the lumbar spine and branch off on the left and right sides of the pelvic area. The nerves continue to travel down the legs to carry sensory messages from the brain to the legs and feet.
Driving—or sitting if you’re the passenger—for long hours in the bucket seats found in most of today’s vehicles often pressurize this nerve where it’s closest to the skin’s surface.
How can you prevent sciatic pain while driving?
Fortunately, there are things you can do to minimize your risk of an irritating attack of sciatica.
Start hydrating a few days before your trip. Proper hydration will help you avoid muscle cramps, which can aggravate the sciatic and other nerves. It also helps with circulation and reduces swelling.
Get a good night’s sleep the night before you start your trip. When you’re tired, your body is more susceptible to injury.
Stretch before, during, and after your trip. Tight muscles can trigger a sciatic attack. Stretch your leg muscles for 10 minutes before you get in the car. Stretch and move for at least 5 minutes at every gas or bathroom break. Take time for a longer stretch—10 to 15 minutes after you reach your destination. These movements can help reduce your risk of tight muscles and nerve pain.
Use cruise control if weather permits. Cruise control will allow you to reposition your legs during your drive. However, for safety, it’s best not to use cruise control in heavy traffic, fog, or wet conditions.
But Sciatica isn’t the only pain caused by long car rides.
Poor driving posture can cause pain in the neck, shoulders, and back.
Take care to sit in the proper position in your car. Like your office, your ergonomic positioning will help you avoid injury. Follow these general guidelines to find the best seat position to support your body shape during the ride.
1. Scoot your bottom back as far in the seat as possible.
2. Slide your seat back, so there is a slight bend in your knees when driving. If you’re the passenger, keep your knees aligned at a 90-degree angle from your hips to prevent pain in your hips and back.
3. Recline the back of the seat at a 30-degree angle. The goal is to recline enough to support your back but avoid the need to crane your neck forward for a good view.
4. Support the lumbar area of your lower back. Use the seat’s built-in lumbar support or a rolled-up towel between the seat and the arch of your back to provide gentle support without pressure.
5. Tilt your steering wheel, so your hands rest in a comfortable position. Place your hands a little lower than your shoulders, causing a slight bend in your elbow. Driving instructors suggest looking at the steering wheel as if it were a clock and placing your hands at 10 and 2 for maximum driving control. However, the Cleveland Clinic suggests using clock positions 4 and 8 for best body positioning. We’ll leave it to you to find the position that works best for you.
6. Position the headrest an inch or less away from your head. For proper alignment, the bottom of the headrest should be level with the top of your neck. This positioning provides maximum support and reduces the risk of whiplash in the case of an accident.
It may take time to find the best seat position for your body. But if you’re planning a long trip, it’s worth it. Some vehicles allow you to assign a seat position for up to three drivers. When a new driver gets into the car, they press their assigned number, and the vehicle automatically adjusts the seat, steering wheel—and sometimes pedals and mirrors—into the correct position.
How often should I stop when I’m driving?
The guidelines for stopping to get out and move to mimic the guidelines for sitting.
Experts say you should stop and get out of the car every 30 minutes. But for most road trips, that would add hours to your journey. If you can’t make frequent stops, try to reposition your legs, fidget in your seat, or roll your ankles ten times every 20 to 30 minutes. Moving your legs helps keep your blood moving and helps you remain pain-free.
Here are a few practical things you can bring to help ease discomfort during a road trip.
• Pack a sports-type ice pack in your cooler.
• Put a heating pad in your suitcase. If your vehicle has heated seats, use them to warm up your back muscles and relieve pain and tightness.
• Take along healthy snacks—fruits, vegetables, and homemade treats—low in salt and sugar.
Taking steps to keep your body hydrated, rested, stretched, seated correctly, and moving as often as possible are keys to helping your joints and muscles remain pain-free during a long road trip.
How do you treat sciatica and other travel-related pain?
If you do experience pain after a long road trip, look for improvement in a few days. If your condition doesn’t improve, contact a physical therapist or a pain management specialist. They are uniquely trained medical care professionals who can realign muscles and joints to help you relieve pain and increase mobility.