Your time in the driver’s seat can cause your lower back pain to flare up. Steps you can take to reduce irritation and relieve pain include adjusting your seat settings, using lumbar support, and applying topical ointments.

Person with back pain driving.Share on Pinterest
Mariia Zotova/Getty Images

If you live with chronic back pain, you may find that driving makes it worse. Driving, particularly for extended periods of time, can also be a risk factor for back pain.

Sitting in the car is harder on the body than sitting on a couch.

You’re stuck in the same relative position for long periods of time, which causes your muscles to stiffen up. You’re also concentrating hard on the road and the traffic around you, which can cause muscle tension. And you lack the lumbar support you may typically get from pillows and cushions.

But it is possible to reduce back pain when you’re driving. There are a number of small adjustments you can make, and tools you can use, to help you avoid discomfort.

When you’re driving, especially for long periods of time, your back can become achy or downright painful. Sitting positions can put pressure on your back muscles and spinal ligaments. If you have poor posture or slouch forward when you drive, the pressure of this position can worsen your pain.

In addition to its physical effects, driving can also be mentally exhausting and stressful. This can cause tension to accumulate in the shoulders, neck, and back, increasing pain and achiness.

Whether you’re a long-haul trucker, weekend road warrior, or workday commuter, use these tips to ensure a pain-free driving experience.

Lumbar support cushions or pillows can be used to alleviate back pain while you’re driving.

Lumbar support cushions provide support for your lower back, or lumbar region. This helps take some of the pressure off of your spine. Degenerative conditions, such as osteoarthritis and spinal stenosis, can cause pain and stiffness in the lumbar region while driving, especially in older adults.

Lumbar support cushions fill in the space between your lower back and the car seat. This helps you maintain good posture while driving. In addition to reducing lower back pain, lumbar support cushions may also help alleviate radiating pain down the legs.

If you’re on the road and don’t have a lumbar support cushion handy, try rolling up a towel and placing it against your lower back.

Experimenting with your seat position can help you find the most supportive angle. This includes moving your seat forward and backward, moving it up and down, and adjusting the tilt of the back and bottom of the seat.

To support your back, position your seat so your spine is straight and aligned. You can maintain a straight spine even if you’re leaning back slightly. Sit with your weight equally distributed on both sides of your body. Your thighs should be flush against the entire seat. And your knees should be positioned slightly lower than your hips.

You don’t want to sit so far back that you’re overextending your arms to reach the steering wheel, so try to keep a slight bend at the elbows. You also don’t want your seat raised too high, causing you to slump or be hunched over while you drive. This can cause you to tilt your neck forward at a painful angle.

The size of your car can have an effect on seat adjustment capabilities. Compact cars that are too small to accommodate your height may have too little headroom, making it hard for you to sit up straight. If you’re planning a long trip, try to avoid small vehicles if you’re tall.

Adjusting the height of your steering wheel can also help take pressure off your neck and back.

Pull your steering wheel toward you, so your arms don’t stretch forward. This should reduce strain on the muscles of the neck, shoulders, and upper back.

On long trips, try holding the steering wheel at the 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. positions, instead of at the 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. positions. Many drivers feel less arm pressure in this position, especially if they’re able to rest their arms and elbows comfortably on their armrests while driving.

While you’re at it, also make sure to adjust your rear and side-view mirrors to avoid neck strain.

Heat reduces pain by reducing constriction in tight blood vessels. By increasing blood flow to your back, heated car seats may help loosen tight muscles, reduce muscle spasms, and relieve stiff joints.

Some heated car seats include a massage feature, which can also provide soothing relief and reduce back pain.

If your car doesn’t have heated car seats, you can buy a heated car seat cover to install manually.

Certain types of footwear, like flip-flops and high heels, may not only impede your ability to drive safely but may also lead to increased lower back pain. Poorly fitting shoes and high heels change your sitting posture, which means your pre-set seat adjustments won’t work the same way as they do with a flatter, properly fitted shoe.

The safest shoes to wear while driving are sneakers or other shoes that provide traction. A cushioned shoe, like a running sneaker, can also help absorb vibration from the driving pedals.

Topical pain remedies can provide temporary relief for back pain while you drive. Over-the-counter (OTC) back pain salves come in all different shapes and sizes. They may provide a numbing sensation, a warming sensation, a cooling sensation, or a combination of these.

Keeping an easy-to-apply roll-on salve in your center console will help ensure you always have something there to provide relief if the pain gets too bad.

Some plant-based, OTC creams also contain ingredients like cannabidiol (CBD), capsaicin, and arnica, which may help reduce swelling, muscle pain, and stiffness. Some CBD creams contain menthol for cooling relief. Others may have anti-inflammatory properties.

If you have severe or chronic back pain, talk with a doctor about using a prescription strength gel, like diclofenac (brands include Voltaren, among others).

You may prefer a long-acting pain-relief patch to a rub-on salve or cream. Sticking a patch on your back can help provide more long lasting relief.

Heat patches work on back pain like a mobile heating pad. They contain substances like iron powder that activate when exposed to air. They may also offer more penetrative heat for easing tight muscles and expanding blood vessels.

Other pain-relief patches include lidocaine patches for lower back pain. Lidocaine helps numb pain, so you don’t feel it as much. These are particularly helpful for neurological pain, like sciatica.

Heat patches can be purchased at drugstores and at many rest stops along major highways. You can pick up OTC lidocaine patches at a drugstore or talk with a doctor about prescription strength options.

Patches can offer many hours of pain relief, which makes them helpful for long drives.

Cruise control isn’t an option during rush hour or on slippery, winding, or unsafe roads. When you can do so safely, using cruise control may help reduce back pain by enabling you to change your leg position.

When your car is set to cruise control, put both feet flush on the floor with bent knees. Rest your body weight evenly on both feet. This will help take the pressure off your back.

Taking frequent breaks is one of the best things you can do while on the road. Walking, stretching, and moving reduces stiffness and tension, which can help reduce your back pain and prevent it from getting worse. If you can find a grassy area, try doing stretches or yoga poses for back pain relief.

Sitting for long periods can exacerbate swelling in the lower extremities. If you have edema, walking may reduce fluid buildup in the ankles, feet, and legs. This fluid buildup can contribute to back pain.

Slouched shoulders and a rounded back can cause constriction in blood vessels and nerve endings throughout the back and neck. This can cause or worsen joint stiffness and cause muscle pain and strain.

Even if you concentrate on maintaining good posture while driving, you may experience muscle spasms and stiffness from remaining in one position for too long. Try adjusting your posture slightly to alternate areas of pressure in your back. You can also take turns at the wheel with a passenger, if possible.

Hoisting or lifting heavy objects, like boxes, crates, and suitcases, can strain or overstretch back muscles. It can also tear them, causing significant pain and injury.

If your job (or the weight of your suitcase) requires heavy lifting, make sure to protect your back by lifting properly. The best way to lift heavy objects is to squat down and lift with your legs, not your back.

Staying hydrated on the road can be challenging. However, it’s absolutely essential for overall health, as well as for reducing the potential for back spasms and painful muscle cramps in your back and legs.

To avoid this, pack bottled water or low sugar electrolyte drinks. You may also want to stock up on fluids when you make rest stops.

Back pain while driving is a common complaint. If you’re planning a trip, you can take simple steps that may help you avoid back pain. These include taking breaks from driving, using pain-reducing creams, and remaining hydrated. Stretching before, during, and after your trip can also be beneficial.

Is CBD legal? The 2018 Farm Bill removed hemp from the legal definition of marijuana in the Controlled Substances Act. This made some hemp-derived CBD products with less than 0.3% THC legal at the federal level. However, CBD products containing more than 0.3% THC still fall under the legal definition of marijuana, making them illegal at the federal level. Some states have legalized CBD, so be sure to check state laws, especially when traveling. Also, keep in mind that the FDA has not approved nonprescription CBD products, and some products may be inaccurately labeled.