Travel with a back condition

Travel with a back condition

This is a story about how I went from being a backpacker to rolling a suitcase behind me. Carrying a backpack isn’t the only activity or travel related issue for people with a chronic back condition. There is a lot more to traveling than carrying your stuff around. There are flights where you sit in the same position for ages, long bus drives, bad beds and more. Keep reading to find out how to save yourself!

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My own back condition

Being a nurse (x-ray technician) for almost 15 years and being gender nonconform are two things that contributed to my constant backache. At first, when I was going through puberty, I started taking a bad posture to cover my forms and I never got to change that. So a sloppy posture is one of the things you’ll regret later. The second factor, working in healthcare, involved a lot of moving patients from their bed to the cat scan table and back. This is also a guarantee to fuck up your body!

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Scheuermann disease

Yes, that what I got! Scheuermann disease is a condition where your back slowly deteriorates. Some people don’t really feel anything, while I seem to hurt almost all the time. Some time ago, I hurt my back pretty badly while moving a patient at the hospital. It had happened so many times before and I’d been injured so many times before. I was aware that my back wasn’t strong enough to do all these activities, but you got to work, right? So this time the doctor in the emergency room ordered a cat scan of my back. Since X-rays and cat scans are my profession, I didn’t need more than 5 seconds to look at the pictures my colleague had taken to know something needed to change. My spine looked like the spine of an 80 year old grandma and so it felt. I had to quit this job and change some things in my life.

Traveling with a back condition - Scheuerman - Only Once Today
Traveling with a back condition - Scheuerman - Only Once Today

Back conditions and travel

Even though I had a chronic backache, I still was a backpacker at heart and I didn’t want to change to a roller suitcase. In my mind, they were other types of travelers, which I wasn’t. So one more time, I hoisted the backpack up from the ground and ignored the pain.

I was wrong. Somewhere during our trip, after buying multiple ointments and tiger balm, which Lobke lovingly put on me each day, my brain finally caught up with me. I just didn’t want to lift the damn backpack anymore. It took me a few days to get over it, but after that, we went to the store and bought a stroller suitcase. I still feel silly pulling it down the streets and into hostels, but I just try not to think about it. My backpacking days are over!

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Roller suitcase - Traveling with a back condition - Only Once Today

Luggage Tips for traveling with a sore back

Light travel isn’t for everyone. We tried, but we just wanted to take more stuff. Even when we took off with less luggage, we came back with twice the amount of souvenirs. Follow these tips to save your back on luggage lifting.

Change to a stroller suitcase

I know! But I promise your back will thank you for it! 

Pack Light

Your backpack should weigh no more than 15% of your own body weight. If you’re back is sore, it should weigh even less. If you want to pack more stuff, use the stroller! 

Don’t lift and twist

You should never lift something while turning. Do them one at a time. First lift, then turn.

Use your legs to lift stuff

Bend your knees and crouch when you’re trying to lift something. Your knees are up for the job, your back isn’t.

Lift in 2 steps

Put your backpack on a table or elevated area before you put it on your back. Another option is to sit down to strap it on. Then use your legs to get up.

Always use both straps and the waist strap

Carrying your backpack on one shoulder will twist your back. The waist strap takes a lot of weight from your back and moves it to your waist. It’s more comfortable and better for your back.

Use a backpack instead a sling bag

Bags that can be carried over one shoulder might look cooler, but they tend to pull you to one side, especially when it’s heavy. 

Tips for the road

Long bus rides or long flights, they can be a pain in the back when you have a back condition. Sitting still is definitely not a good idea to keep the pain away. These are a few tips to survive long travel days. 

Get a medical statement from your doctor

A medical statement describing your condition can never be a waste of luggage space. It doesn’t matter if it’s for carrying medical supplies or getting a better seat. You’re more secure having this statement than without. Now you can ask your airline for an aisle seat or more leg space out of medical necessity.

Try to get an aisle seat

Aisle seats allow you to stretch your legs from time to time. They’re also easier to get out of. Aisle seats allow you to go for an occasional walk. 

Stretch before boarding

It might look silly, but I tried it and it helps. Do a general stretching of the muscles that will be unable to stretch for the next few hours. I usually stretch more muscles these days. Some can be stretched while flying, but it’s more difficult. Check this guide for stretching exercises.

Support your back

When sitting for longer periods of time, it’s best to support your back. Put a small pillow behind your lower back. Airlines usually provide these pillows. You can also use a rolled up sweater or shirt. 

Sleeping tips for travel with back conditions

Your own bed is usually best. When traveling you never know if the beds will be good. We had hostels with brand new mattresses that were better than home. We’ve also had beds that were too soft and lacked support, resulting in a lot of pain in the morning. You can never know what bed you will land in, but there are a few things you can consider.

Check recent reviews or contact the hotel

Sometimes you’ll run into reviews that describe the state of the beds, which might be helpful. You can always email the hotel or hostel to check about this if it’s very important to you to have a special type of mattress. We usually only know when we arrive.

Put an extra pillow under your knees

An extra pillow to put under your legs can be a lifesaver. Elevating your legs puts your back in a more comfortable position. When lying on your side, you can put the pillow between your knees to take away the pressure from your back.

Bring accessories

Some accessories take up a lot of space in your suitcase. Luckily, there are quite a few accessories for travelers with an aching back. Here are just a few examples.

Tiger balm

Tiger balm can be a blessing when your back or neck is aching. It packs pretty small and can be used for multiple purposes.

Inflatable Lumbar pillow

An inflatable lumbar pillow also has multiple uses. You can use it to put behind your back on long flights or bus rides. It can also serve to elevate your legs when lying down.

Heat Packs

As tiger balm provides heat, you can also use travel heat packs or heat wraps, which are smaller and don’t need a plug.

Keep exploring!

As you can read, a sore back or chronic back condition doesn’t necessarily need to keep you from traveling. It’s probably a good idea to do extra research and plan your travel more careful. But you don’t need to stop exploring, just because you don’t want to lift a 15kg backpack. My condition isn’t too severe and it would have to get a lot worse before I would consider staying at home. Every condition is different and requires different solutions. Talk to your doctor about what’s possible and how you can make things easier.

How to travel with a back condition - Only Once Today
How to travel with a back condition – Only Once Today

About The Author

My name is Inge. I'm a traveler, writer and photographer. All those things I want to share with you. I've traveled a lot and wish to explore some more unknown territory.

6 Comments

  1. Travel Fidget

    Hi Inge,
    I liked your post because I’m also s traveller with back pain. I will write an article about it sometimes in the future! I understand you perfectly! I had a lumbar herniated disk and since then can’t lift much, can’t walk hours on an end like before and can’t do many activities. And it’s painful to fly for so many hours. Which is why I find that spending more money on transportation, for example a short flight to replace a bumpy bus ride, is one of the keys to less pain. Good idea with the heat packs I haven’t tried this, but I always have with me pain medication just in case 🙂

    Reply
    • Inge

      Thanks for your input! Good idea to replace bumpy bus rides! Although I do love the charm of the bus rides and the views a lot 🙂 We’re choosing to drive on our own now, so we can stop as many times as we want!

      Reply
  2. Cat

    This really resonates with me, i have a back condition too. Great tips here and good to know someone understands.

    Reply
    • Inge

      Thanks 🙂 A back condition can really hold you back. It’s hard to find good solutions and be comfortable. But never stop traveling! 🙂

      Reply
  3. Karin

    This is really super helpful. I broke my spine half a year ago and I am still unsure about what exactly I should and shouldn’t do. Luckily, I travel with a partner who now carries most of our equipment (I don’t think I’d be able to travel full time as before without him) but I had to significantly downsize which is a bit annoying. But I’d rather travel with less clothes than not travel at all, so that’s what we do. My doctor said that I shouldn’t carry more than 5 kg but in reality, I usually carry less than that.

    Reply
    • Inge

      That sounds very painful! I hope you will start feeling better with time. Of course, it’s a challenge to rediscover how to do things when traveling. I’m happy you are traveling and finding solutions to travel issues! Keep it up and happy travels!

      Reply

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