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The Connection Between Airline Seats and Back Pain: Why to Use a Lumbar Support Pillow


A woman holding her passport and plane tickets with her other hand on her lumbar area

You’ve been on an airplane for over four hours and you didn’t splurge for business class, so you’ve been crammed into a middle seat with leg room that can only be described as less than ideal. When it’s finally your turn to rise from your seat and make your way down the aisle, the pain in your lower back is so intense that you almost have to sit down again.

Back pain and airplane seats often go hand in hand, but this kind of lower back pain is avoidable. Learn why your back hurts after sitting on a plane and how a lumbar support pillow can help.

What Is Lower Back Pain?

Lower back pain is very common and can range from a dull ache to shooting pain. It can happen without provocation or as a result of doing some kind of activity.1 Most lower back pain is short-term, or acute, and typically resolves itself in a span of a few days.1

The lower back supports most of the weight up the upper body in the lumbar region. It is composed of five vertebrae and maintained by intervertebral pads that act as shock absorbers as the body moves.1 Additional support is provided by ligaments, which hold the spine in place, and tendons, which connect muscles to the spinal column.1 This one small region of the back is responsible not only for carrying a lot of your body’s weight, but also keeping it balanced.

There are a number of physical reasons why someone’s lower back could hurt:1,2

  • Congenital issues like scoliosis or spina bifida
  • Pain due to sitting for long periods while travelling
  • Injuries ranging from a sprain or spasm to something more traumatic like a car accident or a fall
  • Degenerative problems due to age, where the discs between the vertebrae wear down or the spine itself wears away
  • Issues with the spinal cord or nerves like sciatica, stenosis, and ruptured discs
  • Other issues like pregnancy, kidney stones, and chronic pain syndrome.

The Connection Between Sitting and Lower Back Pain

In other cases, the cause of lower back pain may be attributed to lifestyle. Working at a desk all day can contribute to your back pain as well, especially if your chair doesn’t provide correct back support or your posture is poor.1 When travelling, sitting in terminals or while in transit can also increase back discomfort.2

Sitting for a length of time can actually aggravate back pain instead of relieving it.3 In some instances, the discs that act as cushions between your lower vertebrae can develop a bulge that can pinch a nerve in your spine, causing pain.3 Studies have been conducted that measure the amount of pressure placed on those discs, and they found that there’s actually more pressure on your lower back when you’re sitting compared to standing.3

Research is still being conducted in this area, but the medical community seems to agree that muscle spasms are the most common cause of back pain, and that prolonged sitting can lead to a greater frequency of muscle spasms.3 People often report that their back muscles are tighter and more painful after sitting for a long period of time, like a road trip or a long plane ride.3 If your posture during these long seated period isn’t correct, your slouching can overstretch the ligaments in your spine and put additional strain on the spinal discs.4 Poor posture over long period of time can contribute to the damage of your spinal structures and lead to pain in your neck or back.4

Preventing Back Pain on Airplanes

While sitting for a long period of time on an airplane may be unavoidable, there are some things you can do to mitigate lower back pain while traveling:

  • Try to stand or stretch for at least a minute or two every half hour to keep your joints, muscles, tendons and ligaments loose.4
  • Prop up your feet.4 You should be able to slide your fingers under your thighs while sitting; if you’re unable to do this you should try to prop up your feet to adjust the angle of your hips and back. Some airline carriers even have footrests built into the seats to accommodate this. Your hips and knees should be at a right angle, and your feet should be flat on the floor.5
  • Ensure that you have proper lower back support.4 If you’re sitting properly, your butt should be pressed against the back of your seat, and your lower back should be supported in a slight arch so that you don’t slump forward.4 One way to accomplish this is with a lumbar support pillow for travel, which helps to maintain proper position of the spine and increase comfort over long periods of sitting.6
  • Ease and limit pain by taking medication that targets pain at the source of inflammation and blocks pain signaling. Advil Dual Action Back Pain is formulated with both, making it an ideal travel partner.

Airline seats are firm and high-backed, which help to promote proper seated position.5 However, their standardized size means they’re not a perfect fit for everyone; people may round their backs in an effort to get comfortable, and this position doesn’t support the natural curve of the lumbar spine.5

Packing a lumbar support pillow for long flights is a great idea, but if you need to improvise, a rolled-up towel or sweatshirt placed at the curve of your lower back can help to relieve back pain from travel.5 Try some seated stretches as well, to keep your muscles limber.

Lower back pain and airplane seats may feel like an unavoidable combination, but you can combat it with a solution: Advil Dual Action Back Pain.  Two of the most powerful pain fighting ingredients team up to fight back pain. NEW Advil Dual Action Back Pain fights back pain in two ways: Acetaminophen blocks pain signals, while Advil* targets pain at the site of inflammation. Advil Dual Action Back Pain quickly relieves tough back pain and lasts for 8 hours.

Source Citations:

  1. Low Back Pain Fact Sheet. National Institute of Health - Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Accessed 5/2/2023.
  2. Why Is Sitting So Bad for Us? Yale Medicine. Accessed 5/17/2023.
  3. Don’t Take Back Pain Sitting Down. Harvard Health Publishing. Accessed 5/2/2023.
  4. Ergonomics for Prolonged Sitting. UCLA Health. Accessed 5/2/2023.
  5. Low Back Pain: Coping. Cleveland Clinic. Accessed 5/2/2023.
  6. The effect of a lumbar support pillow on lumbar posture and comfort during a prolonged seated task. National Library of Medicine. Accessed 5/2/2023.

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