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headache when flying | pain with plane travel

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5 Reasons Plane Travel can cause You Pain

Pain during plane travel is extremely common. Although it feels great to be able to get back on a plane and holiday again or just change our scenery, your trip away can go pear shaped very quickly if we end up coming off our flight in pain. There are a lot of aspects to catching a flight that may lead us to a flare up of an old pain or something new that we haven’t experienced before. People commonly experience musculoskeletal pain with plane travel such as back pain, jaw pain, neck pain, foot and ankle pain. But common doesn’t mean it needs to be necessary! In fact the list continues with bloating and jet lag being other common complaints post flight. Keep reading to learn how a flight can affect your body and how to manage.  

How can sitting on a plane cause pain?  

Sitting for long periods of time can be especially aggravating at the best of times during long work days or even when in positions we think are comfortable- like on the lounge. But flights can be tricky as the seats are often more upright and less forgiving with their cushioning. We don’t have the opportunity to change position as easily and as we are fairly close to other people, it can also make it hard to get up and move.  

But what does this mean for our body?  

When we hold a still posture for a long period of time, our joints aren’t moving around and then neither are our muscles. It doesn’t matter how good your posture is, a sustained posture for long periods of time can be very aggravating. Now most of us have probably experienced how upright airline seats can be and because of the lack of movement with them, we end up slouching around even worse than we usually would at the work desk. Add in a long haul flight, it can only be expected that joints and tissues will end up being sore and tense at the end of a flight. This sustained posture and stress to certain tissues can even exacerbate previous injuries.  Add in lifting a heavy suitcase, and your holiday can take a quick turn for the worst.  

The thing is, just like we tell most people to break up sustained activities during the day, this is exactly what you can do while you are on the flight, but all from the comfort of your seat.  

Jaw and headache pain with plane travel? 

Sometimes due to our neck wobbling around as we try to sleep or even as some of us are anxious flyers, it is common to experience jaw pain and headaches around our flight. This can be as a result of clenching our jaw or an increase in muscle tension through our neck. Unfortunately, either of these can have a domino affect to the other and often leave us with a headache and pain with plane travel.   

This can sometimes be confused with Airplane Ear which can occur during flight as the plane takes off or lands. This is when you may experience popping through your ears or discomfort of heaviness. In more severe or prolonged cases, there might be some ringing or tinnitus in your ears. This is due to the quick change in air pressure creating a stress on the eardrums. This pain is usually alleviated with yawning, swallowing or having something to chew on.    

Bloating can occur on a plane flight!

The change in cabin pressure doesn’t only affect your ears. Bloating in fact is very common on planes due to the drop in pressure. This causes the gasses in your stomach to expand and contribute to a tight bloated feeling through your abdomen. Avoid fizzy drinks if you can as this will add additional gas and tension through your tummy.  

Foot and ankle pain with plane travel?

It might not be until we start to walk around either on or after a flight, that our feet and ankles might feel not quite right. Make sure you have a look down at them as it can be common that our feet and ankles swell due to pressure changes on a flight making them tight and squished in our shoes. Whilst it is a common occurrence, remember to take note of any colour changes or temperature changes to your feet and legs if they are swollen. If you do note anything out of the ordinary, like them being red and hot, that you arrange to see a medical practitioner as soon as possible. It can be expected that foot and ankle swelling will subside after you have landed but we do want to keep out for a DVT. A DVT or Deep Vein Thrombosis, is a condition where there is a clot forming in one of your veins and prevents blood from moving.  

Symptoms for a DVT include: 

  • Swelling in the foot, ankle, or leg- usually on one side  
  • Cramping pain  
  • Severe unexpected pain in the foot or ankle 
  • A patch of skin that feels warmer to the touch than other areas 
  • Or a patch of skin that has turned pale, red or blue 

Risk factors to develop a DVT include: 

  • Age 50+ 
  • Previous damage to leg veins e.g. from a fracture or surgery 
  • Being overweight  
  • Varicose veins  
  • Family history  
  • Genetic clotting disorders 
  • Birth control pills  
  • Hormone therapy  
  • Smoking  
  • Being pregnant or have recently given birth 

Jetlag

You’re not imagining it, jetlag is a real thing. It refers to fatigue that the body experiences when sleep cycles and exposure to the sun, which regulates our circadian rhythm, changes. This goes hand in hand with changing time zones as we jet set around the world. It might present as fatigue, tiredness, tummy upset or difficulty concentrating and is typically worse the more time zones you have travelled. Give yourself time and plenty of water during this adjustment period. Being dehydrated will not help the case of jetlag you may be in for and will contribute to unnecessary headaches.  

What to do before your flight  

Here are some things you can organize before your flight to minimize the likelihood of pain 
  • Make sure you are on top of your body pain and muscle tension  
  • Speak to your osteopath about personalised exercises you can continue to do while you are away  
  • Make sure you are able to comfortably lift your suitcase and that it isn’t too heavy 
  • Pack a spikey ball and heat patches- they are worth the space in your suitcase  
  • If buying a suitcase, opt for one if 4 wheels so you can have it next to you when you are walking as it is easier than the ones dragging behind you.  
  • Buy a neck pillow to support your neck for any airport naps! It can be also comfortable to place behind the lower back for support if you need.  
  • Wear loose, comfortable clothing. 
  • Consider wearing compression stockings if you have noticed your feet swell in the past, or adjustable shoes that will not cut into the skin.  
 Things to do while on the plane  
  • Use a neck pillow, to stop your neck and head from rocking around while you get some rest 
  • Staying seated, turning around to look both directions to encourage rotation through your spine  
  • Our seated COGs exercise is perfect to work through flexion and extension in the spine 
  • Tilting your ribcage to each side 
  • Neck twists and side bending  
  • Keep hydrated and limit fizzy or gassy drinks 
  • Bringing a stick on heat pack to manage muscle tension and keep you relaxed.  
  • If you can, getting up for a walk every hour to stretch your legs  
  • Seated calf raises  

What to do when you land

But it can often be that with the mix of adrenaline and exhaustion that means we are able to ignore our plane postures and push through things we would usually address on a usual day. It can even be that this cocktail of feelings that puts pain on the backburner until we have landed. It might not be until we pick up our suitcase that we are reminded that our body wants some help.   

But this is why you’ve packed some heat patches and your spikey ball so you can continue work through your body and make progress while you are away.  

  • Roll your spikey ball at a comfortable pressure around muscle tissue that may feel tender. Area’s like these can often be our glutes, next to the spine and through the front of the shoulders and chest.  
  • Your exercises individually prescribed by your osteopath are also great skills in your toolbox
  • Our website has even more for you to use as well!
  • Heat is a great tool to encourage muscle tension to relax.  
  • Make sure when lifting or pulling your luggage from the luggage belt you are using two hands if it is particularly heavy 
  • Try and catch up on some sleep when you can, it will really help the body manage inflammation, recover and adjust to your new time zone.  

Try these tips to avoid pain with plane travel and give yourself the best odds of your holiday being a holiday and not a trip away in pain. But if you do end up in a situation, just know that we are contactable by phone if you have any questions that you need answering before your next appointment.  

Need some help with your body a from a flight?

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