Posted by: thehungryrunner | November 9, 2009

“Oh my aching back!” What to do after a long car ride

Most of us cannot avoid having to spend a great deal of time in a car.  And while dealing with the usual hassles — traffic, long commutes, weather — can be a royal pain, for many, the REAL “royal pain” includes a stiff, achy back as a result of sitting in a car seat for extended periods, which in turn impacts the quality of your day, and even your ability to engage in the activities you enjoy.

Thankfully, unless there is a specific underlying medical condition (please see your doctor to check  on this), tightness and discomfort caused by long car rides can be immediately alleviated — and eliminated completely for the most part — with just a few well-chosen stretches and strengthening moves.

But first it helps to know why sitting in a car is so counteractive to a healthy and supple low back in the first place.

Our body is most comfortable and stable when it is “neutral”; that is, when our muscles and joints are neither flexed nor extended at an angle.  This especially holds true for the back.  When the back is neutral, each vertebra is aligned, with equal space between each disk, and no pinching or compression occuring between two or more vertebrae.  And while there is still a need for muscles to contract to hold the upright, neutral body in place, that activity is minimal; there isn’t a need for excess effort or compensation just to maintain a reasonably normal position or movement (such as standing in place or walking).

All of this changes the minute we either move the body more dramatically — for example, when we engage in a sport, bend over to pick something up, or do housework….or we take the body out of a neutral alignment, which inevitably happens when we sit in a car or chair.  In the case of more dramatic movement, this is normal, and if the body is healthy and our muscles are strong and flexible, we can accommodate these movements with no issue.  In the case of sitting, or if there is a lack of strength, endurance or flexibility, suddenly the back can find itself loaded and arranged outside of what it can handle.  That’s when fatigue, aches, and even injury become a real risk.

But given this article is focusing on sitting, I will stick to addressing what happens there.  When we sit, our pelvis is tilted, and suddenly our entire back (but especially the low back) is no longer neutral — the back of the spine is extended and rounded, and the front of the spine (which includes the muscles of the abdomen and chest) is shortened and compressed.  This is not a natural position for the body, and although the body is normally very resilient to such fluctuations throughout the day, the fact that we spend such long periods in these positions is why our body can’t completely compensate.  So what happens?  The low back gets overstretched, tired and weak; the muscles in the front of the body become chronically shortened and tight, and suddenly there isn’t that optimal equal space between each vertebra anymore.  Moreover, the lack of movement in other planes — such as twists and side bends — further reduces the low back’s flexibility, and the muscles of both the front and back of the leg become tight and stiff as well, due to the leg and knee each being flexed in that seated position.  Tight leg muscles and tight chest muscles will in turn put more pressure on a low back, as the body will attempt to compensate for the lack of mobility by trying to force the back, pelvis and shoulders to move more, often in ways that the body isn’t meant to move.

So now you take that collection of imbalanced muscles and joints, and it’s no wonder you feel a thousand years old when you attempt to stand up straight after uncoiling yourself out of your car!

Now that we know what long periods of sitting can do to the back, how can we fix that?  The answer can be broken down into five steps:

  1. Return to neutral:  All too often, when we get out of the car, we don’t fully return to an upright, neutral, tall posture.  Instead, we return to about 90% of that, but that missing 10% is what can lead to chronically bad posture and a miserable back and neck!  So stand up tall, roll your shoulders back a couple of times, and stretch your arms overhead to help your body restore its full length BEFORE you take even that first step.  Better yet, borrowing from the other four points, put your body through a short series (we’re talking less than a minute) of light stretches of various muscles in various directions, to help take the edge off your body’s stiffness and get some blood flowing to achy joints.
  2. Stretch the front of your body:  Muscles that especially need it are the hip flexors (think front of the thigh) and the chest.  These are best performed indoors, preferably on a daily basis, to help keep these muscles supple and to offset the effects of both your past and future car rides.
  3. Stretch certain muscles of the back of the body:  This especially includes the hamstrings.  See Item 2 for additional explanation.
  4. Strengthen the glutes, low back and upper back muscles, emphasizing exercises/movements that move the arms and legs behind the body (for example, from a standing position, raise one leg straight behind you, without tilting forward at all).  What comes with a long car ride is a back side that is virtually listless.  Wake up these muscles to help keep your body neutral AND comfortable (remember, a strong back won’t fatigue/ache as quickly!) both in and out of your car!
  5. Move the low back through 3 types of stretches:  hyperextensions (which puts the back in a lightly arched position), twists, and side stretches.  This puts the back through movements that differ from the chronic trunk flexion of sitting, which helps to improve comfort, flexibility and protection against injury.

We may not be able to avoid sitting in the car (unless someone invents a SegwayMobile — I’d love to see THAT mock up!), but thank goodness at least we can do something to mitigate its side effects! 

PS:  If you’re in need of specific stretch examples for the above, I invite you to consider purchasing a membership to The Flexibility Coach (www.theflexibilitycoach.com).  As of right now, a one-time-only fee of $34.95 will bring you access to over 50 custom stretching programs, audio instructions and videos, including five routines I have specifically designed to promote a healthy low back.  Come on over where I can help you further!

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