How to sit comfortably and avoid back pain when driving

Back pain: guide to sitting comfortably when driving, with advice from the British Chiropractic Association

As the summer holidays get into full swing and millions of motorists take to the road, drivers who are sitting comfortably in their car are luckier than they may have imagined. Four out of five people suffer from back pain, according to the British Chiropractic Association (BCA), and of those surveyed this January, 40 per cent say that sitting down aggravates back or neck pain. It’s enough to send a shiver down a driver’s spine.

Tackling the problem of sitting comfortably when driving and avoiding back pain doesn’t require action as drastic as buying a new car. That could be a very costly mistake, as it’s rare for a car to leave drivers feeling uncomfortable after a brief test drive; often it takes hours on end at the wheel before the telltale signs of back or neck pain begin.

Instead, there are plenty of practical steps to follow that should help most people get comfortable at the wheel. We asked Rishi Loatey, a practising chiropractor and member of the BCA, to share his advice for drivers and help banish Britain’s bad backs. 

Loatey says the most common problems that drivers suffer from are lower back pain, sciatica – an irritation of the sciatic nerve that can lead to numb legs – and a stiff neck.

Yet in his experience, often it’s the make and model of car and how the seat is adjusted, rather than the act of sitting behind the wheel, that leads to problems for patients. “Interestingly, we often see patients who will say something along the lines of, ‘It’s bad in my car, but when I drive my van I don’t get any problems.’”

This is often the case with someone who owns an SUV and another, more sporty type of car. The elevated driving position that SUVs, MPVs and vans offer can be more comfortable, and it shows the need for drivers to either set up their seating position correctly, or to take an extended test drive before they make any decision about buying a replacement car. Here’s the BCA’s advice for drivers to avoid back pain when driving.

On the road, comfort rules over style

Not many of us would wear tight clothing and shoes with high heels when cleaning the house or getting stuck into some gardening, so why restrict freedom of movement when driving? Loatey suggests wearing comfortable clothes and keeping a practical pair of flat shoes in the car if you regularly wear high-heels.

Can you depress the clutch and keep your heel on the floor?

Drivers should have their seat pulled far enough forward so that they can fully extend the clutch pedal while keeping their heel on the floor and are able to maintain a slight bend in the knee.

To avoid back pain, keep the seat backrest tilted

The backrest of the seat should be tilted back ever so slightly, to help support bodyweight. Another tip is to check that when turning the steering wheel your shoulders remain in contact with the seat – rather than hunched forward.

Set the headrest above the ears

For safety reasons, it’s vital that the centre of the headrest sits higher than a driver’s ears. If it’s lower than the ears, it acts as a fulcrum in an accident, which actually worsens the effects of whiplash.

Move those hips

A comfortable seat will position the hips higher than the knees, support the shoulder blades and offer a wide range of adjustment. Drivers should make sure the seat base can be tilted, a little like a seesaw, so that the hips can be raised.

Small things are a big discomfort

You should be able to reach the steering wheel yet still have a bend in your elbows, looking at the mirrors should just be a simple eye movement rather than a head movement and it should be easy to depress all the pedals, especially the clutch, without lifting yourself from the seat. Often, says Loatey, it’s the small things that drivers do repetitively that contribute most to discomfort.

Use the adjustable lumbar support

If a seat has adjustable lumbar support, set it so that the back feels like it is in its natural shape, rather than an exaggerated form.

Stretch and shrug

When stuck in traffic or during a long journey, it helps to keep the body mobile. No one’s suggesting you need to break into a Mr Motivator routine; just try some simple but effective exercises, such as buttock clenches, side bends and seat braces – pushing your hands into the steering wheel and your back into the seat – and shoulder shrugs, with a five second hold, as well as shoulder circles.

The NHS has advice on preventing back pain and a range of stretching exercises which could be helpful for sufferers.

Take a break

On a long distance it’s important drivers take a break every couple of hours. A stretch and short walk will help the body and the mind relax.

Read more: Are your children sitting comfortably and safely in the car? A crash test simulation highlights the dangers of basic booster seats

2 comments on “How to sit comfortably and avoid back pain when driving

  1. R.Smith 17/06/2018 10:35 PM

    I’m fairly tall and my knees are way higher than my hips when sitting in my car and I get back pain all the time from this. The saloon car I drive is too limited in terms of seat adjustment to counteract this. I tried a cushion on the seat which helps a bit, but my knees are still way higher than my hips. The only solution I can think of is to put an extra couple of cushions on the seat to build the seat height up by at least another 4-6 inches. It seems most car manufacturers are not addressing this problem sufficiently. Of course, they’ll tell you that the seat is easily adjustable and the back of it tilts up and down, but why is it that my knees are always way above my hips??

  2. Soo 20/06/2018 10:58 AM

    How can I stop the seat belt rubbing my neck. I do not have a long body, but have longer legs! I am always having to pull it down, as on my car it cannot be adjusted

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