Before leaving for your summer vacation, something to consider…

One common complaint that we hear from multiple patients is pain coming from the hip, back, and various other body parts while driving.  This summer, before getting in the car for several hours to drive to your vacation spot, you may want to consider adjusting your seat to prevent pain.

First, let’s consider the car seat:car seatIt looks so comfortable and inviting to take you on a wondrous journey of adventure, nostalgia and fun.  In reality, this vehicle of fun may also be a version of a torture chamber that quietly inflicts more pain the more time you spend in it.  How can it be that something so practical as  a car seat could cause so much pain.

Now lets discuss briefly the lumbar spine.  The American Academy of Orthopedic surgeons estimates that between 60-80% of adults will experience low back pain at some point in their life.  Below is a picture of the anatomy of your lumbar spine with a possible disc herniation.

lumbar herniationNotice the area in red that is compressing the nerve (in yellow) as it exits the lumbar spine.  This area of compression is often exacerbated with prolonged sitting, particularly slumped or slouched sitting.  Sitting can allow for your body weight to place more compression on the front your lumbar disc which can then lead to more pressure of the disc on the nerve.  If you maintain the seated position for several hours, pain can begin to intensify.  The typical pattern of pain begins with isolated pain in the low back or hip but then radiates further below the hip into the leg.

Over the years, we have heard of patients doing some very obscure things to achieve comfort while driving.  Some people simply lay down in the back seat, others turn their heated seats to full blast and still others take pain killers in an attempt to reduce the pain.  One thing people forget to do is simply adjust their sitting posture properly to off-load the weight on their lumbar spine.

Lumbar spine supports such as the one pictured below can offer some relief but more important is the support of the sacrum.

car lumbar support

With lumbar supports, it is still possible to slump sit and therefore have pressure on a lumbar disc.  An alternative is sacral support which helps to maintain stability at the pelvis.  Imagine the pelvis is the foundation of your spine.  If you sit with your pelvis slumped into your seat, as pictured below, every spinal segment above the pelvis will also have poor positioning.

bad posture in car (2)

For a different approach, if you support your pelvis, with a rolled up towel for example, your back can maintain a more neutral alignment and therefore off-load some of the pressure from your lumbar spine.  Notice the position of the pelvis in the picture below; see how it is near perpendicular to the seat surface? There is no slumped sitting and therefore reduced tension on low back!

good posture in car (2)

While simply adjusting your seated position may not cure all pain, it is something to consider while attempting to “take the edge off”.  However, in some situations, remember that seeking medical intervention from your physical therapist or primary care physician may also be necessary to further assist in eliminating pain.


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