Preventing Low Back Pain on Airline Flights

Lessons from this study make up what I think is about a third of the solution to effectively treating low back pain preventing future episodes of back pain.  That is, to avoid prolonged damaging posture particularly in spine flexion.

Using a pneumatic support to correct sitting posture for prolonged periods: a study using airline seats. Ergonomics. 2009 Sep;52(9):1162-8. McGill SM, Fenwick CM.

Abstract
Prolonged sitting with spine flexion has been linked to low back disorders.  A variety of mechanisms account for this based on biomechanical and neurological variables.  Airline seats typically cause pronounced lumbar flexion due to their hollowed seat back design.  A pneumatic support, placed between the seat back and the lumbar spine, was tested to see if lumbar flexion was reduced.  Results showed that when the seats were positioned in the upright position, 15 of 20 participants experienced reduced lumbar flexion (by 15 degrees on average) with the support.  The study was repeated on the five non-responders with the seatback set in the reclined position.  This resulted in another four experiencing less lumbar flexion.  Since seated flexion is associated with disc stress, reducing flexion with the support reduced lumbar stress.  Spine flexion that results from prolonged sitting is associated with disc stress and pain.  The pneumatic support tested here reduced spine flexion.  While it is not known why airline seats are designed with no lumbar support, which causes excessive lumbar flexion while seated, the pneumatic support corrected this deficit. Reclining the seatback enhanced this effect.

My comments:

McGill’s studies on the lumbar spine are always good.  Although the above paper is in relation to airline seats (which are particularly bad) sitting with various degrees of spine flexion in automobiles, couches and chairs at home, and computer workstations are often problematic as well.  Unfortunately if a person is sitting in prolonged spine flexion causing vertebral ligament strain, muscle spasms, posterior disc bulges, and herniations, no amount of exercise is going to completely fix that.  More often than not spine stretches will only make matters worse by further destabilizing already overstretched tissues.  The good news is that the solution is often simple.  A pillow of various size or other object of that fills the gap between a person’s chair and and the small of their back to maintain a neutral spine just requires some awareness of the problem and a bit of imagination.  In this case researchers had subjects use an inflatable support, which can be adjusted to a person’s comfort. However when I fly I find the larger in-flight magazine found in the airline seat pocket in front of me, when folded lengthwise, supports my spine just right and I don’t have to worry about packing it or forgetting it. So far 100% of people sitting next to me have agreed it helps prevent in-flight low back pain, and pain upon landing considerably.  Best of all, it’s free.

As always, if you have any further questions or need for clarifications, please don’t hesitate to ask. Being aware that some of my blog ideas are contentious and occasionally a bit out of the field of my expertise, I encourage my readers to come forth with any questions/comments that are of interest or concern. Your comments are valued and welcomed.

Chad Reilly is a licensed physical therapist, located in North Phoenix, practicing science based medicine with treatment protocols unique and effective enough to proudly serve patients from Phoenix, Scottsdale, Mesa, Chandler, Tempe, Peoria, and Glendale.

2 thoughts on “Preventing Low Back Pain on Airline Flights

  1. Dear Chad,
    Your blogs are really excellent! I love that you present science-based reasoning and add your personal experience, which sounds extensive. Do you treat patients with spondylolisthesis? It would be worth it to fly to Phoenix for your advice.

    • Hi Steven,

      Thank you very much for appreciating my blogs! I do work with spondylolisthesis, and you could fly out here, but I don’t think you would need to. People having back pain but difficulty/impossibility reaching my office is a common theme since I started blogging. Unfortunately it as common that people can’t find a local practitioner in their area who offers the same kind of treatment as me. So I’ve recently closed my physical therapy office so I can focus entirely on Spinal Flow Yoga, which takes my largely strength based exercise program and incorporates it into a fully neutral spine yoga sequence. And I recently transferred all of my blogs from absolutePT.com to SpinalFlowYoga.com. I still need to go in and change all my signatures so people redirected from AbsolutePT know where they are and it’s clear what Spinal Flow Yoga is.

      Depending on how bad your spondylolisthesis is I would think you could start Spinal Flow Level-1 and progress from there. The flow is up and as I’m getting better at web design I’ll be able to describe it better, but until then I have comments open on all the web pages so you can as for clarification as needed. And I would hope you did so as answering the questions will help me better describe the flows and what to do in a given situation. Spinal Flow is what I would call a “minimal viable product” so it still ins’t polished but I do think even in its current state it’s leaps and bounds better than anything else out there. Best part is it’s only $20/year now. Everyone says I should charge more but I think spine pain is so common that I think low price/high volume has a better chance of being successful.

      Also I would encourage you to check out my blogs on EMS and back pain. If your pain isn’t that bad EMS probably isn’t necessary, but if your condition is at all advanced EMS with a good machine (My favorite being a Globus Genesey 300 or Triathlon ordered direct from Italy off of Ebay) combined with my parameters, rubber carbon electrodes, and straps works synergistic with my exercises, either weights or Spinal Flow. That’s what I would if you were here but you can own the machine for what’s possibly less than the price of a round trip plane ticket.

      Definitely let me know if you have any questions.

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