Taking Care of Yourself in a Car
It’s that time of year again. The time of year where school starts, which means sports, clubs, programs, and extracurricular activities are starting as well. This also means more time in and out of the car, helping the young ones get in and out, and lifting the babies in car seat carriers in and out. All of it adding up to stress on your body, specifically your low back.
There are many ways you can start feeling back pain in the car. So when can you get the pain and how can you prevent it?
Sitting for long periods
Sitting in the car where your lumbar spine is in a “flexed” position is a large proponent of low back pain. You may get this by driving long periods or by simply sitting in the car waiting to pick someone up/drop them off.
When the lumbar spine is put in more of a “flexed” position, meaning the spine is more curved, the low back can get very painful. To help ease or prevent the pain, use a lumbar support in your car. The easiest way is to roll up a towel, tape it together, and set it in the small of your back against the seat of the car. This helps create more “extension” or arching of the back, restoring the spines natural curvature.
Many of you may say, “My car seat has a built in lumbar support,” or “I can increase the lumbar support in my seat.” Yes, you may be able to do this and have no issues. However, there are cases when the seat does not provide enough and the towel works better. There are also instances in which you “cannot feel” the lumbar support. In this instance you need to look at your posture, which brings us to our second point.
Poor posture can also contribute to low back pain. The next time you are driving and you come to a light, become aware of your posture. Are you slumped forward? Are your shoulder blades are touching the back of the seat? Is your low back is rounded? And are you slumped to one side resting on the door or the center council? If your answer is yes to one or more of these, your posture needs to be fixed.
Starting with a good lumbar support, such as a towel roll or increasing the air in the seat to its max, you can sit in the seat making sure you feel your low back beginning to arch. If it is exaggerated, then it is too much. Next, check to make sure your shoulder blades are touching the seat as well. At this point you can grab the steering wheel with arms high or low whichever is more comfortable. Your head should also be upright and not leaning forward. Below is a good picture of what to avoid and what you should look like.
Getting kids in and out of the car
Those of you struggling to get your toddlers in car seats and lifting the infant carriers into the base may have other low back issues.
When lifting young toddlers into the car, make sure you are bending at your knees, keeping your back straight, and engaging your core. When you use your legs to lift, you are taking pressure off the lumbar support and using your core to lift helps to protect the low back.
This picture shows exactly what you want to do, the knees are bent, the back is straight, and the core is engaged. After squatting down, you can pick up your child and use your legs and core to stand back up. Once you pick up your child, make sure to keep the child close to you. You can then transfer the child to the seat and buckle them in. If you have to bend over to buckle the child in, make sure you are bending at the knees slightly and engaging the core. We call this a “hip hinge”.
Notice just the slight bend in the knees, back is straight, core is tight and engaged, and she can reach her arms out to perform an activity, specifically buckling in your toddler.
“What do you mean by ‘engaging your core?’” you might ask. The muscles of the core consist of more than just the “6-pack”, the rectus abdominis. While this muscle may be appealing, it doesn’t do much for stability since its primary role is to curl the trunk. Contracting the spinal stabilizers, particularly the transversus abdominis (the deepest abdominal muscle) is the key to spine stability and truly engaging your core.
To practice, lie on the floor and place your fingertips one inch above your hip bones and one inch in towards your navel. Continue to breathe normally as you draw your navel in towards your spine and up towards your ribcage and then slightly bear down, imagine lowering the navel towards the floor. You should feel your abdomen tighten; you may feel like you’re on the verge of laughing or coughing. Another way to think of engaging your core is to imagine you’re bracing yourself for a punch in the stomach. After getting the idea of it laying down, you are now ready to do it in any position!
You are now ready to “engage your core” while lifting and buckling in your child!
Fussing with Car Seats
What about low back pain when lifting those heavy car seat carriers and clicking your infant into the car?
Just as before, you will want to bend your knees and “squat” down to pick up the car seat, engaging your core and keeping your back straight. When doing this, grab the car seat at the bar with the crease in your elbow rather than with your hand, then turning your hand over you can grab the side of the car seat. This will help you get more leverage to lift and keep the load closer to your body, not to mention it puts less strain on your shoulders and upper back/neck as well! Once you get to the car, make sure you get as close to the base in the seat as you can. You are then able to use your free hand to hold the bottom edge of the car seat and lift using both arms to click in the seat. Don’t forget to check your core again before attempting to lift and place the car seat in the base. This will ensure your back is protected as you reach more in front of you.
When doing these tasks over and over in one day, it can get taxing on the low back, however, now you should be able to protect yourself better with correct posture, correct form, and engaging the core.