For sufferers of chronic back conditions, driving is an entirely different kind of pain.
If you’re plagued by chronic back pain, driving can be a painful experience, especially on road trips and long commutes.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans experience low back pain, according to a 2012 survey by the American Physical Therapy Association. That statistic doesn’t include physical complaints associated with driving.
Fortunately for drivers, there’s a roadmap for relief. You can start with a better driving position based on tips from ergonomic experts.
Also helpful are a number of cushions and seating pads that in some cases can be custom-fitted to the curves of your back.
Another, more expensive, option is to have a motorsports shop install a high-tech replacement seat for ergonomic comfort.
Deborah Read, president and founder of Seattle’s ErgoFit Consulting, is an ergonomics consultant, occupational therapist and fitness trainer. She and her team work to eliminate workplace injuries and increase productivity in a variety of working environments — business offices, construction sites, manufacturing facilities, transportation companies, etc.
“Ergonomics includes biomechanics, industrial engineering principles, psychology and kinesiology,” Read says. “What I like to say is that it optimizes the human, in an environment.”
Like driving a car.
Read suggests four basic steps to improve ergonomics while driving.
Step one: Remove objects from your back pockets that can cause strain.
Step two: When entering a car, people often engage in an automotive version of Twister, extending a right leg into the car and then contorting legs and hips to complete entry. Read suggests sitting first, then swinging your legs into the car.
“You want to do the same when you exit,” she says. “Move your legs out to the ground and stand up. So your entry and exit mirror each other. It helps the knees as well as the back.”
Step three: Adjust the seat.
“Sometimes the best way to properly adjust your seat is to put it in a horrible position and then make adjustments,” Read says.
“Figure how close you need to be to reach the pedals. You want your hip angle to be more than 90 degrees. You want the seat back slightly reclined. And you want good support from the lower seat pad without the front edge digging in under your thighs. If you can adjust the front edge down, it takes pressure off the legs and the back.”
Step four: Adjust the steering wheel.
“It’s important to position the steering wheel low and close and then place your hands in the 9 and 3 o’clock position instead of 10 and 2. Or even at 8 and 4. With the classic 10 and 2 position, your arms are high, which can fatigue the entire back as well as the neck. Getting your elbows down as far as possible is better.”
In addition to proper seat adjustment and steering position, back rests and seating pads can improve a vehicle’s ergonomics.
Bellevue’s Relax the Back store sells such products as McCarty’s SacroEase auto back supports (priced at $195-$290), which can be custom-fitted at the store to the natural curves of your spine. There are a number of other, less-expensive products to improve ergonomics and reduce vibration, another cause of back stress.
Typically, car seats are pitched back, placing the driver’s knees above the hips.
“That’s the most incorrect thing you can do,” says Chelsea Burnett, general manager and certified ergonomist. “Our goal is to elevate the hips gently to make them equal with the knees. Your thighs should be parallel to the ground.”
Relax the Back has a medical partnership program for customers receiving treatment from doctors, physical therapists and chiropractors.
Aftermarket ergonomic seats are a stylish but more expensive option for car owners in need of a really supportive car seat.
At Cantrell Motorsports in Bellevue, Recaro brand car seats are on display in a showroom filled with gleaming sports cars. (Call the store for prices and installation; general online prices for the Recaro ErgoMed ES average about $3,600.)
“We have about 10 seats or so in all different styles, from the full-on racing bucket to an ergonomic comfort seat you could put in any car,” says general manager Jeffrey Falconer.