Long distance travel can be a luxury and a wonderful experience, if you have plenty of money to throw about and travel in style. If, like most of us, you are not so fortunate, it is important to develop good habits and take care of one’s posture. According to research carried out by myself and Evexar Compression Advisory Ltd, the average person travels for around 400 hours a year, the majority via car, including an average of 10 hours a year on a plane.
There are two main issues that can cause problems when travelling seated for long periods of time, low back pain and ankle swelling. Why do these occur? Let’s start with low back pain…
The human spine was designed to balance stability and mobility, allowing us to move, whilst keeping us in one piece. When the spine is immobilised for long periods of time, such as when sat in the car or on a plane for over an hour, forces through the spine concentrate onto one particular area, in the lower back. This excessive force causes strain to the intervertebral discs. The spine goes from an ideal posture, to a poor, pain-causing posture. The use of a lumbar support cushion, or lumbar spine brace/belt can aid in the prevention of low back pain. Alternatively, if possible, it is important to get up, move about and stretch both the back and the legs, which can help a person avoid the second problem of ankle swelling and its’ complications.
Any prolonged time spent sitting down will reduce blood flow back to the heart, known as venous return. This will cause blood to pool in the lower limbs, visibly seen as ankle swelling or oedema. This why following a long-haul flight, many of us will notice swollen ankles when we take our socks and shoes off on arrival. This ankle swelling also increases the risk of forming a blood clot or deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which is a blood clot in the deep veins of the leg. This is because the rate of blood flow slows down, increasing the chance of the blood clotting, and logically, the longer the seated, inactive period, the greater the risk of a DVT occurring. DVT also has complications in itself, with the risk that the blood clot may dislodge, travel back towards the heart, blocking a blood vessel on its way, or potentially in the lungs, which is fatal. Therefore prevention of such occurrences is very important, and a few methods are outlined below.
DVT can potentially be caused by dehydration, but more likely by immobilisation. Therefore, it is important to increase water intake and decrease alcohol and caffeine intake when travelling. Leg, particularly calf muscle, contraction exercises are important to increase blood flow back to the heart. Compression socks have been found beneficial in studies with regard to promotion of venous return and DVT prevention after surgery and after travel.