As summer unfolds many of us will be loading our families into a car or boarding an airplane to head for enjoyable destinations. Although the reasons for vacation travel are pleasant, often the trip to a recreational locale means sitting in a cramped position for long periods. You arrive ready to relax, only to find that you are experiencing stiffness, muscle soreness, and fatigue.
Symptoms from Annoying to Serious
Frequently, the initial stresses of traveling lead to genuine pain and muscle spasms. Although less common, the result can even be severe in the form of blood clots or deep vein thrombosis (DVT), sometimes called “traveler’s thrombosis.” A 2003 study in New Zealand indicated that people who are immobile as well as those who fly for 4 or more hours have three times the risk of developing clots in their limbs versus those who do not travel. DVT occurs when a blood clot forms within one of the deep veins, most commonly in the leg. Development of clots sometimes leads to hospitalization and can actually be fatal. If a clot breaks off (as an “embolus”), travels upward to the lungs and remains untreated, then the risk of injury or loss of life increases.
Another study from Leiden University of the Netherlands found that one out of every 4,500 travelers develops a DVT within 8 weeks of traveling. The risk of DVT increases with longer durations and frequencies of flights, obesity, genetic predispositions for blood clots, and in those receiving hormone therapy or taking birth control pills.
Fortunately, simple stretches and exercises that you can do while traveling help offset the physical consequences of inactivity. If your vacation plans include air travel, here are a few ways to stay more comfortable – and healthier – during and after your flight. When the bell chimes after take-off and “feel free to move about the cabin” is heard over the loudspeaker, consider that announcement a green light to walk around and stretch. During longer flights it is recommended that you stand up and move every 30 to 45 minutes. Even walking to the lavatory gives you important opportunities to move rather than remain in a fixed position.
Seven Key Stretches to Help You Travel Better by Air
• Lift your feet one by one and make circular motions with each ankle, being certain to move both clockwise and counterclockwise. If you want to have some fun, point your toes to form letters, words, and sentences, which taps your ankle muscles!
• Extend your leg and place a luggage strap or belt over the sole of your shoe. While holding both ends, pull the strap toward you, keeping the leg extended. This action stretches your hamstring (the tendon behind the knee and thigh). Repeat with the other leg.
• If you find yourself standing in line to use the lavatory, bend and touch the walkway with your fingers as close as possible to your toes – another great stretch for your hamstrings.
• While in the lavatory place both hands on the wall, and put one foot in front of the other as far apart as space allows. Lunge forward. This movement is an effective stretch for your calves. (As an alternate calf stretch: put your foot up on a wall, keeping the heel on the ground, and lean forward.)
• In the aisle stand on one leg, bend the opposite knee until you bring your heel up close to your buttock, and maintain that stance for 15 seconds. Assure your balance by holding onto a seat or, if possible, a wall. Switch legs and repeat. This is an excellent stretch for thigh and quadriceps muscles.
• In your seat, keeping your head against the headrest, clasp your hands together on one side of your head, and tilt your head sideways moving your ear to your other shoulder. Hold that position. Repeat, starting on the other side.
• Also in your seat: take your right hand and touch the back left part of your shoulder. Take your left hand and place it on your right elbow and pull. Switch sides after 15 seconds. Great for your triceps!
Additional Travel Tips
If one is available, place a blanket or pillow behind your upper back and into the curve of your lower back. This position allows your head to stay on the seat’s headrest and pushes your shoulders forward while promoting the natural curves of both your neck and lower back, reducing the likelihood of pain and stiffness. Drink plenty of water, as it is easy to become dehydrated in a confined space at high altitude.
Stretching during flights and during long vehicle rides helps to increase energy, flexibility, and range of motion. Stretching also decreases the probability of pain, muscle spasms, risk of DVT, and fatigue. When traveling, use the simple stretches just described, being sure to work both sides of your body. Hold each stretch for 15 seconds, repeating the entire series a few times per hour. After all, your trip is more than time away – it includes getting to your destination and home safe and sound!
If you experience back stiffness and pain for more than a day or two after a trip, then chiropractic techniques, and possibly a healing therapeutic massage, can likely help restore your cramped muscles to full pain-free function and prepare you for your next adventure. If you are experiencing deep leg or calf pain, consult your medical doctor immediately.