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Originally published Thursday, April 12, 2012 at 9:56 AM

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How to avoid back pain while traveling

Tips for keeping your back healthy on road trips and flights.

Cox Newspapers

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Some of the most common causes of back and neck pain include lying, sitting or standing in awkward positions for prolonged periods of time, such as during long car rides, extended flights or sleeping on a mattress that doesn't provide proper support.

Classic mistakes travelers make include overpacking, which can lead to needless back strain when pulling and lifting suitcases; wearing the wrong footwear; and scheduling more physical activity into their trip than they are accustomed to.

More than 26 million Americans between the ages of 20 and 64 experience frequent back pain. It is also the leading cause of disability in Americans younger than 45.

Dr. Jay M. Lipoff, a certified fitness trainer (www.backatyourbest.com), offers these travel tips to help keep your spine healthy:

Sit right. Adjusting your car seat can help you avoid stiffness, strains and soreness after a long drive. It should be tilted slightly backward and knees elevated slightly higher than the hips. If possible, take breaks and get up and move around, stretching your legs and back.

Protect your neck. The American Chiropractic Association estimates that more than 75 percent of drivers have their headrest at an inappropriate height. Reduce your chances of whiplash by raising the headrest so the middle of it meets the back of your head.

Grab the wheel. Most of us are taught to drive with our hands at the 10 and 2 o'clock position. That's correct, as long as you drop your elbows so your arms and shoulders can relax. Alternatively, lower your steering wheel, grab the wheel at the 8 and 4 o'clock position, and use the armrest, if you have one, or rest your arms on your legs.

Stretch your neck. At stoplights or rest stops, do neck exercises. Examples are gentle side-to-side head turns or moving the ear toward the shoulder.

Start out slowly. When the back is idle for 20 minutes or longer, fluids creep back into the disc. As fluids enlarge the disc, it becomes more vulnerable. So when you arrive at your destination after a long drive, instead of jumping right out of the car, take a few minutes to just do some gentle stretches, reducing the fluid buildup in your disc area.

Lighten your load. Before you even get into that crowded and cramped airplane seat, you face a bigger hazard: luggage. Pack as lightly as you can manage and take advantage of curbside check-in if available so you don't have to haul the bags yourself. A few bucks as a tip to keep your back healthy? Priceless.

Balance your load. When you carry bags, try to balance the load, a roller in one hand, your hand luggage in the other. On long walks through airports, trade sides regularly. If your suitcase has wheels, load everything on it and push rather than pull it. Pushing keeps the weight in front of you centrally, giving you better control.

Fly in comfort. Onboard the plane, place a neck pillow or rolled-up blanket or towel behind your neck to support it so the headrest isn't pushing your head forward. Do the same behind your lower back to support the lumbar spine. If possible, use your carry-on like a footstool to raise your knees above the level of your hips. For reading, pull out the tray and place a pillow or your rolled-up jacket on it, then put your reading material on top so you don't have to look downward to read.

Have some pillow talk. If you have a favorite pillow and can afford the luggage space, bring it along, because many hotel pillows can be quite uncomfortable. Your goal with the pillow you choose is to keep your neck in a neutral position, one that is similar to when you are standing or looking straight ahead. The idea is to support your neck so it's in alignment with your spine, not bent forward.

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