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Driving and Back Pain, Is Your Car Seat Causing Lower Back Pain?

May 23, 2008
A lot of us experience lower back pain whilst driving. A number of researches have investigated the relationship between driving and Back Pain, which uncovered uncovered some interesting results.

One finding is a comparison of drivers in the USA and in Sweden found that 50% of people questioned in both countries reported low back pain.

So what is the connection of driving and back pain?
So far research has found three factors for low back pain whilst driving.

The first one is the vibration from the engine (something that you can not change). The sitting position is the second factor and the third one is the lenght of time that we drive.

Scientists at laboratories have researched the effects of vibration of our body whilst driving. The Lumbar Spine(lower back) naturally resonates at a frequency of 4-5 Hertz.

From research they found that this natural frequency can be distorted. This distorsion can result into higher spinal loadings (compression) in the lower back, therefore causing an increased chance of low back pain.

As mentioned before you can not change the vibration of the engine, but what you can do to reduce the effects of this on your lower back is to drive shorter periods at a time.

It is a lot easier to get comfortable in your seat when the car is stationary, a bit like sitting in a normal chair.

But once you start driving the body will be subject to various forces like accelerations and decelerations, lateral movements from side to side and whole body vibrations.

When we sit on a chair our feet, when on the floor, are used to support and stabilise the lower body. Whilst driving our abdominal muscles can not provide enough stability to our upper body and arms when turning the wheel.

This will result in a significant increase of torsional stresses in the lower back, which in return will significantly increase the risk of low back pain.

To start with we should address one more important issue first - we all are guilty when it comes to adjusting our car seats correctly!

In 2004 one of the largest car insurance companies (i won't mention a name, after all you may think i am paid to write about this), released the findings of a research into how we sit in our car. (about 2.000 people were involved in this).

The research resulted in the following...
1)The headrest was found to be in an incorrect angle when driving of 61% of people involved in the study. This will increase the chance of ruptures of the spinal ligaments or worse when involved in an accident.

2)50% showed a slouched or hunched position over the steering wheel.

3)About a third of the drivers had back pain whilst driving.

4)25% tilted their heads or shifted in their seats each time they had to look into the 'rear view mirror'.

5)Wearing unsuitable footwear or clothing happened to 34% of the drivers.

Please find below a list of 10 ways that can help to improve your seating position, make your driving experience more comfortable.

The Seat:
Make sure that your bottom sits all the way in the back of the seat - where the base and the back of the seat meet.

This will help to make you sit more upright and maintain the natural curvature of the spine, minimizing the stress on the spinal ligaments.

If your seat has a lumbar roll built in have this all the way out - most cars with lumbar support that i tried do not allow enough support fom this lumbar roll, therefore it would be best to have it all the way out.

The Base lenght and Height of the Seat:
The base of the seat should never touch the back of your knees and the front of the base should be slightly higher then the back.

This helps to provide more support and allowing you press the pedals without changing your spinal posture.

The Backrest:
First relax back into your seat, place the seat at about a 10-15 degrees incline from the vertical position.

If this feels unnatural to you then it probably means that the backrest is not upright enough for you. This can result into neck strain and / or coccyx (sitting bone) pain.

Move the backrest more upright or if that doesn't help you can place a small towel (folded in three) against the midspine, between the shoulder blades.

The Headrest:
Have you ever noticed when watching an American movie that the headrests are often missing from the seats - it makes me crinch each time i see this (ooch).

So much for giving a good example to our children. The position of your headrest will not only help to minimise the injuries of an accident but also to help to allow a better posture.

The bony bit at the back of your head (known as the 'inion') is a good guiding point, the headrest should be level with this.

There should be about 2.3 cm's (1 inch for the non -metrics) between the back of your head and the headrest, when you are in the sitting position as described earlier.

This to absorb shock as much as possible. This allows for the ligaments and the muscles of your neck to control the posture of your head better and giving better support in case of an accident.

Seat - Pedal distance:
Make sure you have the distance between seat and the pedals so that when operating the pedals this does not cause you to over strech your legs or twist your body in any way.

Thus your legs should not be straight when pushing the throttle or clutch all the way down. Obviously your knees should not be bend to the point you cannot easily move from one pedal to another. It is normally adviced to have your knees bend about 45 degrees.

The Arm position:
Your arms should be as relaxed as possible, elbows bend around 20-30 degrees. If your steering wheel is adjustable have it in the mid to lower position (make sure the wheel does not partially obstruct the instrument panel).

This will help to reduce the stress on your shoulders. Your hands should be positioned at '10 past10' and not as is suggested left hand at 9 o'clock and right hand at 3 o'clock.

The Armrests:
If your seat has armrests then it is adviced to use these. As a guidance you should position the armrests so that they gently support the elbows, any more will cause the shoulders to rise and increase the change of straining your neck.

The Mirrors:
These should only be adjusted once you have positioned your seat as described above. If not sure then please revisit the information again how to adjust your seat.

The mirrors should be adjusted to allow you to freely look into them without the need of having to move your head much. You either have adjusted the mirrors incorrectly or you are to close to the steering wheel.

Adjusting Seat at intervals:
This sound great in theory but for most of us this may be akward whilst driving. For those who have electric seats it is easier (although it always advicable to stop first).

Just reach for the buttons to adjust the seat without the need to take our attention of the road. It is said that you should be doing this every 30 mins.

This helps to reduce the incidents of back pain and allows to change the pressure that is placed on the spine is varied regularly.

Once arrived at your destination it would be good to strech! (don't worry if it looks funny, soon everybody in the carpark will join in - you can be proud having started a new 'healthy' trend)

Have breaks:
We all have seen the 'take a break' sign along the roads, helping you to avoid falling asleep behind the wheel.

Taking a break helps your back as well, so when you need to take a rest you can have a strech at the same time to help your back.

An hour maximum is the current thinking, although these tips should be taken as a general rule. This is a good time to adjust your seating position!
About the Author
Arjen Bootsma is a Physiotherapist and Medico-legal Expert Witness who has a successfull Clinic (ChesterPhysio) in the UK, please visit http://www.chesterphysio.co.uk for more details. If back pain or sciatica is controlling your life then please visit our site http://www.realbackpainrelief.org or just simply send an email to support@chesterphysio.co.uk.
Arjen Bootsma
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