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An Osteopath's Guide to a Happy Holiday

When you’ve looked forward to that dream getaway for so long, the last thing you want is back pain to ruin it, but the combination of being out of your usual routine, travelling and sleeping in a different bed can often play havoc with your back.

All too often we as practitioners see patients who having been on holiday, who were hoping to have a stress free, relaxing time, but instead have developed back pain whilst away, putting somewhat of a dampener on their ever needed break.

The reality is that most back injuries are not caused from activity based holidays, but from the relaxing ones. Our backs are designed for movement so, our normal movement patterns of travelling to work and moving around is something most backs like. However, the risks associated with going on holiday don’t just start when you arrive…

Holiday risks start pre-holiday with the build-up of stress. Trying to fit things in at work and working longer hours or getting things ready at home, sorting the pets out, etc.

Dragging the cases out of the loft, then repeatedly bending over whilst packing. Once packed there’s manoeuvring them downstairs and lifting them into the car. Even before you’ve left the house those aches and pain can start to rear their ugly heads!

Sitting in a crammed position while travelling in a car, train or plane for a number of hours can cause even the healthiest of spines to stiffen up a little, as can taking cases and bags on and off the trolleys and luggage carousels at ungodly times of the day. So all in all travelling on holiday offers the perfect conditions for back problems.

Other injuries occur thorough changes in movement patterns or due to the unaccustomed activities such as water sports, beach sports and general splashing about with children, while a preventable offender is sunbathing. Sun beds are notorious for poor support for the back, where lying on your tummy puts pressure through the lower back, and is made even worse by leaning up to read a book. The occasional dip in the pool to cool off does little to help counter this. Similarly when you’ve had a relaxing, relatively inactive day you then climb into bed where the back can suffer more punishment. Hotel beds are often unsupportive allowing your back to sag. However sometimes beds can be too hard and not really be supportive either, the same can be said for pillows.

So, what can you do to prevent back pain on holiday?

The very first steps to packing...

  • Baggage selection - buy the lightest case/bag possible that has wheels. Hard cases can sometimes weigh a lot before you even start to fill them.

  • Two cases are better than one. It’s always better to take two lighter cases than one heavy one; it allows a better weight distribution.

Before you leave the house…

  • Pack your suitcase at a comfortable height to reduce the bending and do it well in advance to avoid last minute stress. If you’re the type of person who takes a long time to pack, do it in stages.

  • When picking up your bags bend from the knees and not the waist and avoid twisting and stretching while holding the bag.

  • If you have a comfortable pillow and there’s room in the case take it.

  • Use a rucksack rather than shoulder bag as hand luggage.

  • Have a good night’s sleep the night before you leave as feeling tired increases your risk of injury.

If you’re driving to the airport or to your destination…

  • Relax at the wheel, as this reduces stress on the spine and allows your seat to take your weight.

  • Take regular breaks. Stop and stretch your legs and arms at least every two hours.

  • If you are stuck in traffic, exercise in your seat. Try buttock clenches, side bends and shoulder shrugs and circles – sounds daft but it really does help!

  • Leave the tight clothes at home. They restrict your movement and feel less comfortable.

When at the airport…

  • Use a trolley if you can, but make sure the wheels move freely and that it’s not difficult to manoeuvre.

  • If using a case push, don’t pull! Pulling makes the upper body twist. If possible, push the case in front of you.

When in the air…

  • Drink plenty of water and minimise the alcohol so you don’t get dehydrated as it can exacerbate pain.

  • Exercise whilst in your seat, shoulder shrugs, buttock clenches and foot circles, and get up and about as often as you can.

  • If the seat isn’t supporting you put a rolled up jumper into your lower back if needed.

Movement is an elixir for backs…

  • Backs are designed for movement and hate being still. First thing in the morning, before it’s too hot, go for a half hour walk or swim to wake up your back muscles and get those the spinal joints moving that have stiffened up overnight.

  • If you spend a lot time on a sun bed then make sure that you change your position frequently. Try not to lie on your tummy with your back and neck arched back when reading. Instead keep your head and neck in a neutral position. Change to a chair throughout the day so you are not on the sun bed for more than an hour at a time, or less if you are already experiencing pain.

  • At periods through the day do some simple back stretches every couple of hours. The exercises will keep the back joints mobile and muscles supple.

  • There are many types of activities that are also likely to help. If you can find any aquaerobics, fitness classes, yoga or pilates then sign up and give it a go, it’s all movement for your back. Even exercise like tennis, cycling and water sports can help. Just don’t overdo it and start gently if you’ve not done it before.

How to make the best of a poor bed…

  • Back pain is often caused by a poor mattress; after all you’re on them for a long time. If the bed is too hard putting a duvet under the bottom sheet can help soften it up a bit. It the mattress sags or is too soft then pulling it off the base and onto the floor may improve matters. The final resort, you can always complain.

Treatment for back pain whilst abroad…

  • Massage is widely available in resorts and might be an option, but it needs to be somebody with the relevant qualifications and if you are in quite a bit of pain, placing a pillow underneath the tummy is often a safe bet to support the back, whilst having a massage.

If your back pain is more serious then you would probably benefit from seeing a local osteopath or physiotherapist, or even your local doctor, but do check their qualifications.

Happy Holidays


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