The commuters' guide to back care

Simon Cabot, Nuffield Health physiotherapist provides some tips for keeping your back healthy when you're on the go.

When we talk about back pain and the workplace we often think about the way our desks are set-up or our manual handling techniques. But back pain can occur or be aggravated while we're travelling too.

Driving can be a cause of lower back pain. While some factors, such as the vibration of the engine, which can contribute to lower back pain, are unavoidable, it is also your sitting position and the length of time that you drive that has an effect on whether you experience discomfort.

Where possible it is ideal to take regular breaks when you are driving. After all, the spine is designed to move and sitting in one position for a long period of time can create the sensation of stiffness in the back. For many, our jobs will involve long periods of travel which cannot be avoided; in this instance take as many breaks as possible.

The government signpost our motorways with ‘take a break’ signs to try and combat drivers falling asleep at the wheel but this is also an opportunity to give your joints, muscles and your whole body some movement. If you are experiencing back pain while driving this is a sign that you should definitely take a break.

I’d always recommend getting out of the car to stretch your back at this time as well. If your back is uncomfortable or you are experiencing pain you could also adjust your seat at this stage. Movement is the key to a healthy body. 

When driving

There are a few things to be considered when adjusting your seat to maximise the health of your spine. Here are some tips for making your back more comfortable while driving:

Position your posterior

Make sure that your bottom sits where the base and the back of the seat meet. This will help you maintain optimal support when you're driving, supporting the natural curvature of the spine.

Get the base right

The base of your seat is also important. Make sure it isn’t touching the back of your knees and keep the front slightly higher than the back for additional support when pressing the pedals. Pull the seat forward to within easy reach of the pedals, this will help to maintain comfortable spinal posture.

Support your lumbar

Adjust your backrest often, subtle changes will keep your spine moving and vary the posture. If the incline feels unnatural or uncomfortable this is usually a sign that the backrest isn’t suitable and that an adjustment is appropriate. A small pillow or rolled up towel can be added to provide more lumbar support.

On public transport

Stay balanced

Carrying a bag on one shoulder can cause a muscle load imbalance. A rucksack is the best solution as it distributes the load evenly and allows your arms to swing freely.

If you need to carry a bag such as a handbag or laptop case try to alternate shoulders regularly and keep the contents light. Try to offload things you don't use regularly.

Choose flats

Walking to and from work in high heels offers limited support so it’s better practice to wear comfortable, supportive footwear during prolonged travelling periods. Try wearing trainers to and from the work and keep your heels to wear in the office. 

Get on your feet

If you have been sitting down all day you may want to spend some of your journey home standing if you are travelling by train or bus for example.

Last updated Wednesday 24 August 2022

First published on Friday 19 June 2015