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How to Fly When You Have a Herniated Disc

Published October 2, 2018
| Written By Jimmy Im   | Medically Reviewed by Jerry Nichols, MD
Tags:  Traveling

Whether you're in the air for business or pleasure, these guidelines will help you leave back pain on the ground

Getting comfortable while flying when you have a herniated disc can be problematic. Symptoms are usually made worse by sitting or standing for a long time, making business air travel daunting. It can even make you rethink if the prospective pain is worth the trip. However, with preparation, airplane travel for herniated disc sufferers can be tolerable.

Seek Your Doctor’s Advice

Well before flying, talk to your physician to ensure you are medically cleared to fly. Ask your physician if there are any special instructions or additional medications needed to keep pain at bay and get tips for a comfortable flight. Ask your physician or physical therapist to recommend stretching exercises that can be done before you board the airplane. A letter from your physician with a description of your condition can help obtain special services. The letter should outline any reasonable accommodations that can be made during the flight to prevent any problems.

Getting Comfortable

Jimmy Im, senior lifestyle writer for CNBC and founder of Travel Binger, says comfort is the most important factor for back pain sufferers on flights. “On a scale from 1- 10, [it's an] 11,” he says.

Get ahead of the curve by booking your flight far in advance and choose an aisle seat, which provides more leg room to stretch and it’s easier to get out of your seat to walk the cabin provided the seatbelt sign is off. Before flying, try walking about every hour to stretch your back out. Those with chronic and persistent back pain may find it better to upgrade their seats and skip connecting flights. Im says he “100 percent” recommends upgrading.

“I just want to get it over with,” says Im, who prefers one flight with no layovers. “I”ll fly business class if I have to go long flights.”

Depending on your threshold for pain, if you are traveling a long distance, it may benefit you to break the flight up to have layovers. This allows you to stand and walk, even if you are walking from one gate to another.

Take Support

For proper spinal support to take pressure off your herniated disc, Im recommends a pillow for lumbar support. These pillows can be purchased from a department store or from a medical supply store. Which type of pillow to choose depends on where your herniated disc is located. The goal is to relieve compression from your herniated disc when flying. Place the pillow between the affected area of your back and the seat back to lean against it. Recline your seat as much as you are able after take-off. Some herniated disc sufferers find it to be beneficial to sit on the pillow to take pressure off the back.

Additional tips: Applying heat to a herniated disc is one of the best ways to prevent pain. That can be done effectively with a hot patch that adheres to your skin. Some herniated disc sufferers bring cold packs as well to alternate hot and cold therapy. Plastic zip lock bags can also be used with ice from the flight attendant. Another option for heat is a microwavable heating pad. Ask the flight attendant to heat it during the flight.

Pack your medications in an easy to reach place. Always take all your medications in your carry-on luggage. According to the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA), you are permitted to bring a quart-sized bag of gels, creams, and pastes through the checkpoint in your carry-on bag. Place them together in a zip-lock bag to expedite the screening process.

Carry-on and checked bags airline rules.

Photo courtesy TSA

Managing Luggage

Im says to use “whatever has wheels,” but eventually you may have to lift it. Arrive at the airport long before your flight to make handling luggage easier. Checking your luggage may cost you, but it will save you from pain. Ask a skycap for help and be prepared to tip.

For carry-on luggage, choose a backpack to evenly distribute the weight. It is important to wear both shoulder straps at the same time. Slinging just one strap over your shoulder forces the spine to deviate to one side.

Be careful not to over-pack the backpack. Again, this is where early preparation pays off. Pack it early, try it on, and check to make sure you can stand in an upright position, not leaned over in a C-position.

Finer Points

Wear comfortable clothes to help remain active and to keep from feeling constrained and consider the conditions on the plane. “ I dress warmer than not, since planes get cold,” Im says.

It is also good to continue to eat healthy foods the entire trip. This avoids stomach irritation and can buffer pain relieving medications that might cause an upset stomach. It is also good to stay hydrated to feel better overall.

While it takes some careful planning and equipment, herniated disc sufferers can still be comfortable while flying whether for business or personal reasons.

Updated: November 25, 2019

Information provided within this article is for educational purposes and is not a substitute for medical advice. Those seeking specific medical advice should consult his or her doctor or surgeon. If you need to consult with a specialist, you may be able find a health care provider in our Specialist Finder. SpineNation does not endorse treatments, procedures, products or physicians.

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Contributors and Experts

Jimmy Im is a senior lifestyle writer at CNBC and the CEO of Travelbinger.