Research findings have shown that more than one in 10 (14%) of us spend between 30 minutes and one hour a day commuting by car. Of those who said they mainly drive to work, 44% then also spend most of their working day sitting.
Prolonged sitting is not great for anyone’s back and neck as I have described in previous posts but is there an ideal sitting position that we could choose when we do have to sit in a car, commuting for a long period?
In a study by De Carvalho and Callaghan in the Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society in 2017 they examined patient preference and posture while driving and then their discomfort was monitored. It was found that when people were allowed to choose between 5 levels of lumbar support for 2 hour periods to try to ascertain if any one degree of lumbar support was more beneficial to reduce back and neck pain, no matter what level of support they chose, all participants reported pelvic pain at some point during the 2 hour trial. The most comfortable lumbar support reported was a setting between 2 and 3 cm of extension (backward curve).
However, the longer they sat, the more discomfort was reported, whatever the level of lumbar support they chose.
I discussed sitting and standing at work in a previous post and the merits of both. The main findings were that any one position for too long is likely to result in back pain. What we need to do is to keep moving.
Now this is relatively easy when we are in an office environment but less easy when stuck in a traffic jam in a car where opportunities to move are limited!
Modern cars have adjustable lumbar supports which help and Dr Stuart McGill in his book The Back Mechanic describes the benefits of regularly changing the lumbar support position in order to change the forces on your back joints and muscles while sitting. He describes how sitting comfortably requires frequent posture changes as well as some support.
Dr McGill developed a lumbar support with an inflatable support area. This provided a means of easily increasing or decreasing the amount of air in the support area and the best way to alleviate back pain while sitting was found to regularly change the amount of air in the support.
his could easily be achieved in a car as it is easy to alter the lumbar support and it is a powerful way to reduce low back pain when you can’t keep stopping to walk around.
If you consider that 47% of people have a sedentary commute by driving every day, it is vital to try to reduce back pain whilst they are commuting.
Apart from altering the lumbar support, you could also change the height of the steering wheel. If your steering wheel is too high or too far away, you can build up tension in the shoulder and upper back area. If it is too low and close to the driver, the steering wheel may touch your legs thus reducing even more your ability to move around.
If you have no choice but to be stuck behind the wheel, here are some ways to ease the strain of driving:
- Sit correctly in your seat. Make sure you have your bottom against the seat back with your shoulder blades touching the back rest of the chair. The seat should be set slightly backwards, so that it feels natural and your elbows should be at a comfortable and relaxed angle for driving. Your head should be resting against the head rest. If you leave a gap between the head rest and your head, as in the photo above, if you are involved in an accident, this can cause the neck and head to move backwards and forwards far more and potentially irritate your neck muscles and joints, resulting in pain. If your head is supported then it will move less and therefore cause less irritation.
- Feet should fall naturally onto the pedals. You should be able to press the pedals to the floor by mainly moving your ankle, not lifting your leg. Avoid wearing wear high heels, or very thick-soled shoes, as you will have to extend the ankle too much in order to put pressure on the pedals.
- Exercise while stuck in traffic. Try buttock clenches, side bends, seat braces (pushing your hands into the steering wheel and your back into the seat – tensing and relaxing) as well as shoulder shrugs and circles, anything in fact that means you are safely moving as much of your body as you can. You could stretch your neck to one side – allowing your ear it to drop naturally towards your shoulder for 20 seconds, then repeat to the other side, repeating a few times.
- Mirrors. Set your mirror positions to suit you before you drive off. The mirror positions should allow you to see all around the car with the movement of your eyes with minimal head movement.
- Relax. A relaxed driving position reduces stress on the spine, allowing your seat to take your weight.
If it IS possible to find another way to get to work then try it – it might take a few minutes longer but if you are moving more and not getting as frustrated or tense then it could be a few minutes well spent!
If you do experience neck or back pain when driving despite these suggestions, do call in to see one of the chiropractors so they can maximise the mobility of your neck and low back and show you the exercises that are most beneficial to try to avoid the pain of the commute.