Jan Vickery, Chartered physiotherapist and ergonomist and AXA PPP healthcare’s Head of Clinical Services

Top tips to prevent back pain from driving

27 January 2020

Back pain is a common health problem. According to the NHS website, back pain is the biggest single cause of disability in the UK, with lower back pain alone responsible for 11% of total disability among the population. And the risks increase with age.

This is an issue for employers as well as the general public. According to the UK Health and Safety Executive, 37% of all work-related illnesses in 2018-19 were musculoskeletal disorders, which include back pain. What’s more, they estimate that 6.9 million working days were lost in the same time period due to musculoskeletal problems.

Back pain is often not caused by anything in particular, but staying active can help to prevent it. This means that people who spend a lot of time driving can be particularly prone to the problem.

"It really pays to get to know your car and learn how to adjust your car seat – that way you can help avoid long-term muscle, joint and spinal injuries."

Jan Vickery, our Lead Physiotherapist at AXA PPP healthcare.

Here Jan takes a look at the effect driving can have on your back and how to prevent problems.

Why is driving bad for your back?

There are two main reasons why driving impacts your back: poor posture and being in a fixed position for an extended period of time.

“Our backs are designed to move, so being stuck in an uncomfortable static position for a long time while driving can result in back trouble,” explains Jan. “The majority of people will suffer with lower back pain at some stage in their life, but those who need to drive for more than 4 hours a day on a regular basis are more at risk.”

How to prevent back pain when driving

For anyone who spends a fair amount of time driving each day – whether that’s for a living or a long commute – there are practical steps you can take to prevent back pain and damage.

Here are Jan’s top tips for drivers:

  1. Adjust your back rest so that it makes contact with your back from your bottom to your shoulders, about 100 to 110 degrees. Reclining too far back will make you strain your head and neck forward.

  2. Move the steering wheel up or down to the most comfortable position and distance from your body. Varying your hand position when you are driving can also help to relieve joints and improve circulation.

  3. Slide your seat forwards or back so that your elbows are 90 degrees or slightly more when your hands are at the 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock position on the wheel.

  4. Position your bottom all the way to the back of the seat to support the natural ‘S’ shaped curvature of the spine, and adjust your seat so that it supports the full length of your thighs. Avoid any pressure behind your knees as this can reduce your circulation.

  5. Adjust your headrest so that the mid-portion of the back of your head meets the middle of the cushion when you rest your head back.

  6. Position your mirrors so that you can easily see all around without straining your back or neck.

  7. Take regular breaks. “All drivers should aim to have a break every two to three hours, so that you can move your back, hips and knees. Even a few minutes of walking or stretching will improve your concentration and make the rest of your journey more comfortable.”

  8. If your job also involves lifting items in and out of your vehicle, ensure your lower back is kept straight and that you bend from your knees. This will reduce the strain on your back. Your back is very vulnerable when you lift incorrectly, especially after you’ve been static for a long period of time.

When to seek treatment for back pain

Sometimes back pain needs further investigation.

The NHS says you should seek immediate medical attention if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • Inflammation or swelling on your back
  • Constant pain that doesn’t ease after resting or movement
  • Pain high up in your back or that travels to your chest
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • A high temperature (38C/104F or above)
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • If the back pain started after a serious accident
  • Numbness or tingling around your buttocks or genitals.

Further information

You can find lots more useful information on conditions affecting your muscles, bones and joints, and how to manage your symptoms in our musculoskeletal centre. And remember that if you have health cover with AXA PPP healthcare, you can speak to a qualified physiotherapist for help with any musculoskeletal problems as soon as symptoms occur, and without the need for a GP referral, through our Working Body service

You may also be interested in

Top 10 exercises for a healthy back – AXA PPP healthcare
Constant lower back pain – Ask the expert Q&A
Musculoskeletal centre – AXA PPP healthcare