How to Prevent Back Pain Caused by Commuting

454With, Dr. Eric Keene PT, DPT, CSCS

The deleterious effects of sitting on our body have been well documented. According to the mayo clinic, weight gain, diabetes, back pain, and even increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer are risks associated with prolonged sitting. In short, the best posture is a changing posture. You have the option to change your work desk to a standing desk, put a pillow on the ground and work in a half kneeling or tall kneeling position, or to alternate between all of them. That’s a simple concept to start working into your life; but, what can you do when you don’t have the option to stand? What options do the commuters of the world have?

There are some important principles of sitting that increase core activation and decrease back pain: base of support, alignment, and the lumbar protective mechanism. Basically, these three principles feed into one another. We need to get some weight into our feet so we can unload stress off the back and use a neutral alignment as baseline in order to facilitate deep core stabilization. Imagine Jack and Jill: Jack slumping in his chair with his feet not on the ground and Jill sitting up with her feet on the ground. Where will the stress get stuck? Jack with his feet in the air will have all of his body weight stuck in his back. Jill with some weight in her feet will have her body weight distributed between two points (her feet and bottom) which helps distribute the force.

Here are some quick tips to help enforce these principles for pain-free driving:

  1. If you drive an automatic, push your left leg into the foot rest to the left of the brake with about 10-20% effort. Try to lengthen your leg towards the ground from your trunk and not just push with your knee. This is a game changer for decreasing back pain.
  2. Every few minutes, lift your butt off the chair by pushing your left leg into the foot rest to left of the brake. This will help promote glute contraction and blood flow to the area.
  3. Perform gentle lumbar spine motions into extension. Sitting in the car promotes lumbar flexion. Try some gentle side bending moving from your pelvis as well. Remember, motion is lotion for the joints. It helps bathe the intervertebral and facet joints with synovial fluid like grease in a hinge.
  4. If you have the kinesthetic sense, try to contract your glutes every so often. This helps keep them active so that they are more likely to fire in everyday activities. Sleepy glutes are far too common.
  5. Unload the weight of your arms by placing a jacket or bag on your lap and resting them on it with your hands in the “5 and 7” positions on the wheel (use as your comfort level allows). This can help take stress off of the thoracic spine and neck.
  6. Place one hand under your chin and resist your chin gently to activate your deep neck flexors every so often.

Try applying one or two of these tips at a time and let us know the changes you experience! You don’t have to use these tips all of the time, but if you utilize these tools on most trips (4 out of 5 round trips is 8 out of 10 times), you can decrease your incidence or risk of back pain. Try to be more like Jill and less like Jack. At the end of the day, make sure to drive safely!

Elite Health Services, located in Old Greenwich, (and now Westport!) CT is a world-class provider of certified functional manual physical therapy, personal fitness, golf & triathlon performance training, massage therapy and wellness related services.  Our team of highly skilled and dedicated professionals take a no-excuses approach to providing exceptional care and delivering exceptional results. To learn more visit

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