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Is driving contributing to your back pain?

Published: 15 March 2021 - Pain Management

Beeping, lane swappers and peak hour traffic are all frustrating parts of driving. Back and neck stiffness and pain can add to that frustration.

This article explains how to set up your driving environment to support your body while behind the wheel.

What happens to our bodies when we drive?

How’s your driving posture? Are you a Fast and Furious driver: seat reclined, one hand on the steering wheel and the other out the window?

Driving biomechanics is key to helping your body have a better time while stuck in traffic.

When we sit in traffic, our body’s muscular system goes to sleep and compression forces go through passive structures such as our joints, discs of the spine and ligaments.

A forward head position in addition to a stiff forward flexed thoracic (mid) spine and a slumped lumbar (lower) spine places an increase force of 14kg on the base of the neck, creating muscle tension in your neck and shoulders.

This type of driving posture is common and creates spinal joint stiffness, increased muscle tension and passive instability of the spine due to a lack of core muscular system.

Ideal driver set up to avoid back and neck pain

To help reduce spinal stiffness and muscular tension while driving:

• Adjust your seat to a relatively upright position.

• Re-adjust your rear vision mirror after your seat has been adjusted and sit in an upright position. If you can’t see out your mirror during your commute, change your posture not your mirror. This will help you recognise correct posture.

• Ensure that your seat isn’t too low. Your hip angle (between your thigh and abdomen) should be no less than 70 degrees.

• Ensure that your knee angle is between 100 and 120 degrees.

• Your elbows should be slightly bent and your hands at three and nine o’clock on the steering wheel.

If you spend long periods behind the wheel and you feel that your posture is creating back and neck pain, a postural brace may help make your driving experience more pleasurable and reduce that muscle tension. 

A lumbar support will also come in handy however consult your physiotherapist to correctly setup the back support for your individual needs.

Easy stretches to relieve neck and back tension

Complete these two simple exercises when stopped at traffic lights or after your journey.

1.   Squeeze shoulder blades together by pulling shoulders back and hold.

2.   Squeeze buttocks equally at 50 per cent of maximum contraction and hold.

Hold each exercise for 10 seconds and repeat before the light goes green!

When you’re out of the car it is good to keep yourself flexible. Completing generalised exercise, targeted stretching and mobility exercises as well as using a foam roller can achieve improvement in flexibility that supports reduced muscular tension and joint stiffness while driving.