Is there a link between the two? Before we answer this question, it is worth taking a look at some statistics.
Is back pain common?
Back pain is a very common health problem. A big research study from 2010 found that lower back pain is the biggest cause of disability. It affects almost 10% of the population, with the risks increasing with age. It is population of Western Europe with the biggest number of back pain sufferrers.
Sickness due to back pain is also an issue for employers as well as the general public. According to the UK Health and Safety Executive, 41% of all workplace illnesses in 2015-16 were musculoskeletal disorders, which include back pain. What’s more, around 8.8 million working days were lost in the same time period due to musculoskeletal issues.
Back pain can be caused by sudden movements, overloading tissues or joints. However it is often not caused by anything in particular. Staying active is key and can help to prevent it. This means that people who spend a lot of time driving can be particularly prone to the problem.
Is driving diffrent from ordinary sitting?
It is, because it involves whole body vibration. But driving exposes us to more than vibration as we change our position with varied support to the low back. Moreover, it requires us to use legs, arms and the head all the time. This has an affect on the spine and muscles. But what may be even more important is that we are exposed to transmitted shocks from the road, jolting and various accelarations. Those suffering from acute back pain know exactly how painfull it is to drive on an uneven surface, or drive into a few potholes.
So, does driving affect back pain?
There is no clear evidence that driving causes lower back pain. Yet we know that driving for a few hours can make your back feel sore and achy. This may be to do with blood circulation and the position of the back, and supporting muscles for a prolonged period of time. We all know that pain that gets worse and worse with every mile. The pain gets so bad that we need to stop and stretch or give ourselves a quick self-massage.
“Our backs are designed to move, so being stuck in an uncomfortable static position for a long time while driving can result in back trouble,” explains Jan. “The majority of people will suffer with lower back pain at some stage in their life, but those who need to drive for more than 4 hours a day on a regular basis are more at risk.”
Physio tips to prevent back pain when driving?
For those spending a fair amount of time driving each day – whether that’s for a living or a long commute – there are some practical tips you can take to prevent back pain and injury.
1. Regular breaks are a must while driving long distance; it is best to take a break at least every 2 hrs and use the time to do some dynamic exercises like semi squates or stretches. Ideally go for a quick walk before you continue driving.
2. Adjust your back rest. It should make contact with your back from your bottom to your shoulders, about 100 to 110 degrees. Reclining too far back may strain your head and neck muscles.
3. Adjust the steering wheel to find the most comfortable position and distance from your body. Changing your hand position when you are driving can also help to relieve joints and improve circulation.
4. Your elbows should be bent at 90 degrees or slightly more with your hands at 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock position on the wheel. You may therefore move your seat forward and backwards to get it right.
5. Remember to move your bottom all the way to the back of the seat. This will give your spine a natural ‘S’ shaped curvature. The seat should support the full length of your thighs.
6. Adjust your headrest so that the mid-portion of the back of your head meets the middle of the cushion when you rest your head back
7. Position your mirrors so that you can easily see all around. It is easy to strain your back or neck if the side mirrors are not set correctly.
8. If you doing a lot of heavy lifting in your job, make sure your lower back is kept straight and that you bend from your knees. This will reduce the strain on your back. Your back is very vulnerable when you lift incorrectly. This is especially important after a long period of inactivity.
When to seek urgent medical attention when you have back pain?
Sometimes back pain needs urgent medical attention and it is best to take action straight away.
According to the NHS you should seek urgent medical attention in case of:
- Inflammation or swelling on your back
- Constant pain that doesn’t ease after resting or movement
- Pain in the back that travels to your chest
- Unexplained weight loss
- A high temperature (38C/104F or above)
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
- If the back pain started after a serious accident
- Numbness or tingling around your buttocks or genitals.
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Chartered Physiotherapist and Master Myofascial Therapist. In the NHS since 2008; I currently work in the community as a Physiotherapy Team Lead. I also run a specialist back pain physiotherapy service in Southampton, UK. Follow me on social media.