We have all experienced it; the aching back, numb legs and sore neck that linger after a long drive. Sitting for an extended period of time is obviously not ideal, but there are ways to make that long drive a little bit more manageable. If you have a long daily commute and/or struggle with chronic pain exacerbated by driving, check out our commuting in comfort tips to improve your pain and prevent further damage.
You knew this was coming: the posture talk. You probably have a general idea of what “good posture” is – don’t slouch, sit up tall, look straight ahead, etc. Although these are all good basic instruction for how to hold your posture, there are a few more nuances that we should discuss. First of all, we will go over the concept of a neutral spine. The human spine is not naturally straight; the cervical (neck) section slightly curves to the front of the body, the thoracic (upper back) section curves towards the back of the body and the lumbar (low back) section curves towards the front again – as you can see from the attached diagram. It is important that all of these subtle curves are not exaggerated – as in the picture on the right “the slouch”. Holding one’s body in this position puts a disproportionate amount of stress on joints and postural muscles. This can cause joint stress, core weakness, and muscle tightness leading to more serious chronic pain conditions. Let’s break down the right way to hold each segment of your spine for proper seated posture.
Your neck should be held up tall as if there were a straight line drawn from your tailbone to your head. It may be helpful to imagine that there is a string directly on the top of your head – if that string is pulled straight up, your neck will move into the correct position. It is very common for people to revert to a head forward position when driving with the chin jutting out. This position causes tightness and even nerve/blood vessel impingement in the area directly below the base of the skull – this can bring on a wide variety of symptoms such as soreness, headaches, blurred vision and dizziness. Depending on the make and model of your car, you may need to adjust your headrest to find a comfortable, strong position.
The most important thing to think about for your upper body is the position of your shoulders: your shoulders should be positioned back and down at all times. That means that you are sitting up tall, chest slightly forward with your shoulders back – try squeezing your shoulder blades together slightly to learn this position. It is very common for people to hold their stress and fatigue in their shoulders; any workday stress can cause the shoulders to subconsciously creep up near the ears, and tired upper back muscles may give out and allow the shoulders to round forward. Sustaining this poor shoulder position can cause tightness in the trapezius muscles (large muscle of the upper back) and cause pain and even numbness/tingling in the upper back and down the arms.
Your lumbar spine carries the weight of your entire upper body all day so it needs a lot of support from postural muscles to stay in a strong position for load-bearing. You want to avoid having too much of an arch in your low back because this puts a lot of pressure on the discs between each vertebra. To do this, you should perform a slight pelvic tilt by lightly engaging your abdominal muscles and thinking about pushing your low back into the back of your seat. Remember that this posture has to be sustainable so don’t feel as though you have to maximally engage your core.
Good posture is a learned behaviour, and it will take time to perfect – especially if you are trying to undo several years of poor posture. You may even find yourself to be a bit sorer at first since your body is not used to the extra work (some of your postural muscles may be out of practice!). Don’t be discouraged – good posture will get easier over time and your body will thank you – your pain and range of motion should improve and your body will burn a few extra calories each day!
**Terry Moore Tip: Place a roll lengthwise along your spine when you are sitting (in a car or otherwise). The roll will provide lumbar support and give your body a reminder to sit up tall – if you start leaning forward and no longer feel the roll touching your spine then you have lost your posture and need to correct it! You can make your own roll affordably by rolling a pillow or towel into a cylinder and taping it together.
If you require glasses or contacts for distance – please wear them at all times when driving! This advice is for your safety, the safety of others (in terms of accident prevention) and will help to prevent or reduce your pain. If you are struggling to read road signs then you may find yourself squinting or reverting to head forward posture in an attempt to see more clearly. This can bring on eye strain, headaches and/or neck pain. You should also make sure that your car is always equipped with a pair of sunglasses so that you can protect your eyes from UV rays and reduce squinting.
Heat can be a useful therapeutic tool because it promotes vasodilation in muscles. That means that when heat is applied to the skin, the surrounding blood vessels will become wider and improve blood flow to the muscle. Increased blood flow can help reduce muscle tightness and pain. If you are dealing with muscle pain, turning on your heated seats (if you have them), using a heated seat cover or bringing a magic bag straight out of the microwave before your commute can help reduce your pain. It is important to note that the recommended time for therapeutic heat application is 20 minutes so be careful not to leave the heat on for too long. Heat can also be used preventatively in the winter. The cold will react with blood vessels by causing vasoconstriction – the blood vessels become narrower and restrict blood flow. Opposite to heat, this can cause increased muscle tightness, stiffness and pain. Using heat in the car (heated seat, magic bag, or automatic car starter) can help prevent this cold reactive muscle tightening.
When you are on a long road trip, it is likely that you will want to get to your destination as soon as possible. However, it may be worth the extra 10-15 minutes to stop and stretch your body once per hour. That quick break to stand up and move your body, and maybe even try a few of your favourite yoga poses can help work out the soreness that comes from a long drive. If you do decide to stop and stretch, try to find a parking lot instead of pulling over to the side of the road.
We know that driving a car isn’t an athletic endeavour so you don’t need to wear running shoes just to drive your car. However, your choice in footwear can still affect the comfort of your driving experience. If you wear high heels to work, it would be best to keep a pair of flat, arch supporting shoes in your car. High heels force the foot into an unnatural pointed position and can cause foot pain or numbness. High heels also give the driver less control over their pedal selection – it is easier to accidentally hit the wrong pedal and potentially cause an accident when wearing high heels. It is also preferable that a driver wears closed-toed shoes, or at least not flip flops so there is little chance the sandal could get caught on the pedal and cause the driver to lose control of the vehicle.
Long drives can also be mentally straining because you are forced to stay very alert but also have to deal with the boredom of not having a lot of stimulation to keep you entertained. There are several ways that you can safely entertain yourself when on the road to improve the enjoyment of the drive and ensure that you stay alert. The first option is to listen to the radio or CDs. This is an obvious way to entertain yourself that is easy to set up, but don’t limit yourself to this option! There are many free podcasts on the internet that cover a wide variety of topics from politics, to entertainment to sports! You can download podcasts onto your phone before your drive (to save data costs) and listen to them through your car stereo system. You can do the same with audiobooks; your local library likely has a large collection of audiobooks both in CD and downloadable formats that you can listen to for free. There are also a number of apps and CD programs that provide some audio education, such as learning a new language.
If your pain/discomfort is persistent or strong, you should talk to your family doctor about starting physiotherapy. A physiotherapist can perform an assessment of your current functional abilities and design a specific exercise plan to help improve your range of motion and reduce your pain. A physiotherapist can also provide specific advice for how to improve the ergonomics of your commute and may also recommend additional intervention such as massage therapy. At MMTR Physiotherapy we specialize in the treatment of chronic pain. If you are dealing with pain during your commute, one of our registered physiotherapists would be more than happy to work with you – even without a referral!