Taking a long flight can be uncomfortable for many reasons – the dry cabin air, lack of leg room, trying to sleep upright in your seat. One of the most common complaints during and after long haul flights is neck pain and stiffness. The combination of sitting upright for an extended time with limited ability to move and stretch can put strain on the muscles and joints in the neck and shoulders. Here are some tips to help prevent and manage neck pain during your next long airplane trip:
Choose Your Seat Wisely
Where you sit on the plane can impact neck comfort. Exit row or bulkhead seats offer more legroom so you can stretch out. Aisle seats make it easier to get up and walk around. Try to avoid middle seats or seats at the very back near the lavatories which don’t recline as far back. You want to be able to adjust your seat to a comfortable position and switch positions as needed.
Use a Travel Pillow
Bring a U-shaped travel pillow to provide extra neck support and let you rest your head to the side. Choose one that is made of memory foam that molds to your neck. Make sure it is not too bulky if you want to lean your head against the seat. Use it combined with a seatbelt pillow or travel blanket to cushion your neck when sleeping upright.
Try Neck Stretches and Exercises
Simple neck stretches can relieve tension, improve circulation, and prevent stiffness. Tilt your head gently side to side, turn to look over each shoulder, and bend forward to stretch the back of your neck. Do shoulder rolls and gentle rotations. Every hour or so, get up and walk around the cabin to fully stretch out your spine.
Apply Heat or Cold Therapy
Bringing a neck wrap that provides warm or cold therapy can help soothe sore muscles. Use a soft microwavable neck wrap or pack a reusable ice wrap in your carry-on bag. Apply for 15-20 minutes at a time on your neck and shoulders as needed for pain relief.
Consider Over-the-Counter Medications
Orally ingesting ibuprofen or another anti-inflammatory medication before your flight and during the trip as needed can help minimize inflamed nerves and muscle pain. Topical ointments like menthol or capsaicin creams may provide additional localized pain relief. Just make sure to pack any creams, gels or sprays in your checked bag per TSA regulations.
Try Neck Massage Techniques
Simple self-massage techniques can loosen up tight neck muscles. Gently knead the base of your skull, shoulders, and sides of the neck. You can also use your knuckles to apply firm pressure and rub tight areas – just be careful not to strain your fingers. If traveling with a partner, take turns giving each other a neck rub.
Use Proper Posture and Ergonomics
Avoid hunching forward during the flight, which strains the neck. Keep your back straight against the seat, relax your shoulders, and check that your head is level – not tilting down towards your tray table. Position pillows and blankets to support your lower back. Adjust your seatbelt so it crosses your lap rather than your neck. Use a lumbar support cushion for extra back support.
Drink plenty of water before and during your flight. Dehydration can make muscles more prone to cramping and spasms. Avoid excessive alcohol which can cause inflammation. Walk around the cabin periodically to reduce stiffness and get a cup of water to stretch your neck and keep fluid intake up.
Consider In-Flight Exercises
Many airlines offer suggested stretches and exercises you can do while seated. Follow along with the guidance to consciously move your head, neck and shoulders. This gets circulation going and prevents you from being static for hours in the same position. Simple motions like chin tucks, shoulder rolls, and head turns go a long way.
Anxiety and stress during air travel can increase muscle tension in the neck and shoulders. Use meditation, deep breathing, music, or other relaxation techniques to calm your mind and body. Try to get some sleep on an overnight flight so you are well-rested. Massage pressure points on the neck, temples and behind the ears to relieve stress.
Adjust Your Sleeping Positions
Try not to sleep with your head slumped forward or turned to the side for a prolonged time as this twists the neck. Use a travel pillow or blankets to support your head in a more neutral position. Sleep on the window with your head resting against the wall or bulkhead rather than on your neighbor if in a middle seat. If possible, raise the armrests so your head, neck and shoulders can spread out.
Consider Regular Chiropractic Care
Seeing a chiropractor for spinal adjustments and massage can help prevent and treat neck pain from flying and other causes. If you regularly get neck pain when traveling, make an appointment shortly before your trip for an adjustment. This will get your neck aligned before enduring long periods in a cramped seat. After the flight, follow up for additional care.
With some preparation and awareness, neck pain doesn’t have to limit your ability to take long flights. Use these proactive tips to manage discomfort while still enjoying the journey. The key is listening to your body and doing simple stretches, self-massages, and posture adjustments during the flight. Staying well-hydrated and as stress-free as possible also goes a long way. If neck pain persists after your trip, be sure to follow up with your doctor or chiropractor. By taking care of your neck health, you can keep jet-setting even on the longest hauls.