How To Manage Pain During Travel: By Air Or During Road Trips

manage pain during travel

No matter how you’re traveling, it’s likely that you’ll run into some issues. Here’s our best tips for how to manage pain during travel, whether you’re going by plane or car.

Managing common travel issues for pain patients 

The best way to manage pain during travel is to prepare for it beforehand. We have more specific advice for road trips and flights below, but there are some issues you’ll deal with during both. Here’s how to manage it.

Junk food

Everyone knows that gas station hot dogs and airplane food court options aren’t good for us but that doesn’t stop us from consuming them, especially while on a long travel days. People travel thousands of miles and stopping for fast food restaurants seems like the best idea when you just want to get wherever you’re going in the fastest way possible or you’re on a four-hour layover.

While junk food doesn’t make you feel good and can cause indigestion, did you know it could also cause other forms of pain? If you eat well most of the time but suddenly introduce your body to food of the junk variety your systems could reject it in curious ways. A healthy diet for a healthy person keeps the body’s insulin levels regulated naturally. When you add a sudden influx of unhealthy food the body goes into overtime producing insulin that can cause inflammation, aches, and pain. Imagine what junk food does to a person over an extended period of time.

Try to pack healthy snacks ahead of time, or find healthy restaurants along your route or layover airports.

Tight muscles

When you need to drive ten or twelve hours to get to your final destination you are likely to push through which means you’re sitting in a fairly unnatural position for far too long. Those on an airplane have to deal with cramped seats and smaller spaces for their legs.

Drivers experience tightness in the muscles in their back, legs, and arms from keeping them in the same general spot the whole time. Passengers also experience pain but may have an opportunity to stretch out or sleep during the trip.

See below for tips on stretching and keeping your muscles loose during travel.


With any luck your relationship with your family is wonderful and travel with them is a breeze. That doesn’t mean there won’t be stress along the way though. Traffic can be exceptionally stressful and instances of passenger anxiety are pretty common which, of course, causes more stress for the driver. Airlines are notoriously bad at delaying flights or making last-minute gate changes.

Stress is a known cause of pain including tense muscles, headaches, and clenching of the jaw. Talk to your family beforehand about ways to manage last-minute changes and deal with stress while traveling.

How to manage pain during road trips 

Do you remember the road trips from your childhood? Piling into the back of an old woodie station wagon with all your siblings and no regard to safety restraints would be the height of excitement. Your parents would drive half way across the country to see things like the Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota or the place where you could drive through the middle of a tree. There would be quick bathroom stops and snacks would be doled out on an as needed basis. If you started fighting, your mom or dad would inevitably say something like, “Don’t make me come back there,” or “Don’t make me stop this car!” Those were the things memories were made of.

Then you grew up.

As an adult the car trip is an entirely different thing. You may still love adventure and visiting family but now it involves a lot more seat belts and you hear your own parents’ voices come out of your mouth when you shout commands into the back seat of the mini-van.

Sometimes long car rides can lead to pain as well. In spite of increased attention to ergonomics in modern cars back aches don’t take long to develop, junk food along the way leads to indigestion, muscles get tight, legs feel achy, and adjusting to the cold every time you get in or out of the car can be frustrating. Above all else, road trips can be stressful. Let’s take a closer look at the ways some of these individual situations cause pain while driving or riding in the car.

Prepare for your road trip

Before you get in the car it is a good idea to prepare some things to avoid pain. Here are a few ideas:

  • Pack healthy snacks and plenty of water so you don’t have to rely on junk food
  • Be sure to have warm coats and accessories available to avoid exposure to extreme cold
  • When packing the car, be sure to lift the luggage correctly to avoid strains
  • Bring a lumbar support pillow to help take pressure off your lower back and adjust your seat so you are comfortable before you leave your driveway

How to avoid pain while in the car

Of course, preparing for the trip is only part of the battle. Here are more ideas to avoid pain while on the road:

  • Stretch any chance you get at rest stops, gas stations, restaurants, or any break along the way
  • Switch driving responsibilities as often as possible to give everyone in the car a chance to relax
  • Drive with both hands on the wheel because it is not only safe but it will also keep your spine from rotating uncomfortably
  • Pay attention to your posture at all times and do regular neck exercises to lengthen your spine

Rather than a source of stress and pain your car trips should be the beginning of an exciting adventure or a wonderful time with family and friends. Use these tips to make sure you stay safe and pain free.

road trip

How to manage pain during flights

Air travel has made traveling so much easier for many people. That is to say, it’s easier if you don’t mind paying the high prices, standing in line for security, taking off your shoes, packing everything in an overstuffed carry-on bag so you don’t have to pay for checked luggage, and sitting in a crowded airport for hours waiting for the plane. And, with any luck, there won’t be any delays for weather or mechanical issues. But, in spite of all its faults, flying gets us where we want to go quickly and safely.

Besides these inconveniences, flying can have other drawbacks as well. Everyone is susceptible to pain when sitting in a cramped airplane seat for too long. It can be even worse for someone who already deals with issues of chronic pain. If you’re concerned about pain while flying there are a few things you can do to alleviate or prevent excess pain during your air travels.

Booking your ticket

The biggest trick to managing your pain while flying is to make several strategic decisions when planning the trip.

When purchasing your tickets see if you can request a seat by the aisle and where you don’t have to climb over another traveler to stand up. Most airlines will offer you the option to select a seat based on a map of the cabin so take advantage of this feature. If you can afford the extra cost or you belong to a rewards membership program, don’t be afraid to upgrade to first class. Also, if you feel like you can help in an emergency, select an exit row seat so you have a little additional legroom while flying.

Depending on the length of your trip you may want to divide it up to keep your body a break from sitting in the cramped airplane seats. Schedule a layover where you can spend an hour or two at another airport to walk and stretch.

Before you travel

When packing for the trip think about the need to hoist your bag over your head in to the compartments. If you can’t lift a bag easily you may wish you check baggage so you don’t have to struggle once you’re boarding the airplane. Otherwise pack a lightweight bag that is easy to lift. Other passengers may also help you if they aren’t feeling the stress of travel themselves.

Even if you pack a carry-on bag that needs to be stored in the overhead bins, you can also take one personal item. For women this is typically a purse or it may be a laptop case or other small bag. This is the bag where you should store all of the items that you wish to have direct access to during the flight. It will be kept under the seat in front of you so you will be able to utilize it during the trip. Pack your electronic entertainment or a book so you can reach it easily. You may also wish you have a bottle of water (purchased in the airport after security) and some non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen that you can take if you feel mild pain while traveling.

Call the airline or check your flight information ahead of time online to make sure that everything is running smoothly. If you can minimize your wait in the airport you may avoid some additional pain while traveling.

At the airport

Plan to arrive several hours early for your flight so you don’t feel the need to rush through the airport. Take your time getting through security. Many people want to push through this experience too quickly and end up lifting their bags incorrectly which can twist and pull muscles that are already feeling the effects of a stressful environment. Be pleasant to those around you but don’t feel like you need to do everything at the speed of light.

When you get through security evaluate the airport layout. Where is your gate? Where is a good place to sit comfortably and relax while you wait for your plane? This will largely depend on the size of your airport in general. If you know where you’re going and when you need to be there it will make the walk through the airport less stressful in general. If you need help in the airport, be sure to talk to disability services before you get to your gate.

On the plane

Of course, the real test comes when you’re sitting on the airplane. For much of the trip you will be asked to remain in your seat with your seatbelt securely fastened. While seated you’re not going to be able to move very far. Even so, you can take advantage of some easy stretching exercises. These will help keep your blood pumping and your muscles from getting stiff.

  • Ankles and feet: Stretch your ankles by lifting your feet off the floor and making circles with your toes. Change directions and try moving each foot in a different direction. Then move on to foot pumps by resting your heels on the floor and lifting your toes upward as high as they can go. Repeat this motion.
  • Legs and knees: With your knee bent, lift each leg off the ground while contracting the muscles in your thighs. Next, hold each knee with both hands. Lift your leg to your chest repeating the motion with the other leg.
  • Shoulders, back, and neck: Do a shoulder roll by rotating them toward your ears in circles. Do arm lifts by placing your hands on the arm rests and bend them upwards at the elbow. Flex your entire body forward by placing your hands on your knees. Slowly walk your hands down your shins while moving your body forward. To stretch your neck muscles relax your shoulders and tilt your head from side to side so your ear reaches toward the shoulder.

More exercises and descriptions can be found on the Boeing website.

Finally, please recognize that you are on an airplane with other travelers and their comfort is just as important as yours. The flight attendants are also there to make your trip pleasant so ask questions to see how they can help.

How do you stay comfortable and manage pain during travel? To get even more advice based on your exact pain condition, talk to your doctor