It’s a common experience for travelers – disembarking from a long flight with a stiff, sore neck. The cramped quarters of an airplane cabin, being seated in one position for hours, and strain from tilting your head can all contribute to neck pain and stiffness associated with air travel. Fortunately, being aware of the causes and utilizing some simple in-flight and post-flight techniques can help minimize discomfort.
Why Flying Leads to a Sore Neck
The most common reason is remaining in a seated position with limited mobility for an extended period. On flights over 3-4 hours, passengers have likely sat still with little chance to walk around and stretch. Holding any stationary posture for too long places strain on muscles and joints. In particular, the neck supports the weight of the head while seated on a plane. Keeping it bent forward to view a screen or down to read a book strains muscles and restricts blood flow, leading to pain.
Inadequate neck support also contributes. Most airplane seats don’t provide much cushion or ability to adjust headrests for proper spine alignment. Using the small pillows supplied in-flight rarely offers sufficient neck support. The poor ergonomics of maintaining an uncomfortable, static neck position for hours inevitably causes discomfort, even in seats with more padding and adjustments.
Carrying tension in neck and shoulder muscles exacerbates strain. Travel stress or anticipating long periods of sitting uncomfortably often provokes tension carried subconsciously in the neck and shoulders. Cradling a phone to view or text adds another source of tension. These tightened muscles constrict blood flow, resulting in oxygen depletion and buildup of lactic acid, chemicals that trigger soreness.
How to Minimize In-Flight Neck Discomfort
To reduce neck strain while in-flight, use any opportunity to get up and move around the cabin to promote circulation and movement. Perform seated stretches – gently roll the neck side to side and forward and back. Relax shoulders down away from the ears. Try using a travel pillow around the neck for extra support and periodic relief. Adjust the air vent to blow directly on your neck for soothing aeration. Stay hydrated with water to avoid muscle cramps.
Post-Flight Neck Relief Strategies
After a long flight, implementing a multi-pronged approach can help relieve a stiff, sore neck:
A hot shower, compress, or hydrocollator pack on the neck helps boost blood flow to release built up lactic acid and relax tight musculature. Don’t make the skin too hot to avoid burns. Use a towel as a buffer when applying a heating pad or hydrating gel pack.
OTC Pain Relievers
Anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen, naproxen, or aspirin alleviate inflammatory pain. Acetaminophen blocks pain signals. Topical creams containing menthol or capsaicin offer surface pain relief. Oral medication combined with topical analgesics provide enhanced relief.
Light Stretches and Massage
Gently rotate the neck in each direction and bend side to side. Use fingers to massage sore muscles. Stretch shoulders by interlacing fingers behind the back or reaching one arm across to grasp the other arm’s elbow. Avoid sudden, abrupt movements.
Alternating hot and cold compresses/showers improves circulation. One minute of cold followed by one minute of hot repeated 3-5 times constricts then dilates blood vessels. End on cold.
Be mindful of head/neck position at rest. Align ears over shoulders without jutting the head forward. When working or using devices, bring screens up to eye level to avoid neck strain from looking down.
Isometric exercises apply gentle pressure without moving the neck. Place hand against forehead and slowly push forward. Hold for 5-10 seconds, relax, and repeat. This strengthens neck muscles. Avoid overexerting.
Use a contoured neck pillow or cervical traction device to support the neck’s natural curve while resting and sleeping. Position computer screens at eye level.
Visit a massage therapist for gentle neck manipulation, pressure point massage, and muscle release techniques like active/passive release and trigger point therapy. Request light pressure.
Prevention is ideal. On future flights, pack a supportive neck pillow, set phone/screen reminders to stretch neck and shoulders, stay hydrated, apply pre-flight muscle balm, and reserve an aisle seat for easier mobility. Sitting in an exit row also provides more leg room to shift position.
A sore neck from flying doesn’t have to be inevitable. Employing pre-flight preparations, in-flight stretches, and promptly addressing post-flight discomfort using these techniques can help you arrive relaxed and pain-free. The relief will have you ready to comfortably enjoy your destination. With some preventive planning, neck strain doesn’t have to ground your future travels.