Ease Headache and Neck Pain In The Car

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Although it may not seem like it, the car is a very difficult environment for your body to manage. The floor/seat is constantly shifting as you speed up, slow down, or turn. Manipulating the steering wheel is hard on your arms, neck, and shoulder muscles. The windshield set up and personal habits of where to look can irritate muscle tension. Because the car itself, environments in which you drive, and your personal compensation pattern are all highly variable, it’s best to talk to your therapist about what is best for your body. However, here are some tips to help you get started. 

1) Get grounded as best you can. Feeling as supported as possible allows your body’s resting muscle tension to ease. It also gives you more information about the forces acting on your body at any given moment and how to respond to them. Think about it, if you replaced your car’s seat with a barstool, the muscles in your body would be much more rigid to try to give you stability. Couple that rigidity with the motions of the car when you’re turning, your body cannot react appropriately to negate the force on it, and it will only become more rigid. This will end with your falling off of your stool during a turn instead of being able to rebalance your body and stay seated. 
   Allow your left foot to rest solidly only the floor, not falling against the side of the door. Adjust your seat position and lumbar support so that you can easily feel your sit bones on the seat and your lower back against the seat back. Be careful to not over-support your lower back and cause a lot of arch- you’ll notice that you’re no longer on your sit bones. 

2) Give your arms a chance. Most of us have flattened ribcages in the back. This is problematic because the scapular bone (the foundation of our shoulder joint) is slightly rounded. When that slightly rounded bone is sitting on a flattened ribcage, it has inherently less stability than if it was sitting on a slightly rounded one. Proper alignment allows your scapular muscles to work more efficiently and create a stable base for your long, heavy arm to work off of. 
   This is best accomplished by rounding the upper back slightly so that the area at the bottom of the scapular (bra-line for women) is touching the back of your chair and the area above that is slightly away from it. 

3) Give your arms a break. Even with a nicely rounded ribcage giving your scapula a proper foundation and good stability, keeping your arms upright on the steering wheel for long periods of time is more than most people can tolerate. Once appropriate muscles fatigue, we’ll often use our upper traps and necks to try to hold them up and this creates or worsens pain.
   Try taking turns with your arms and driving with only one arm at a time (obviously don’t sacrifice safety to do this). When you want to drive with both arms, change the spots on the steering wheel that you’re grabbing. First have your arms at 11 and 1 o’clock, then move them to 9 and 3, then again to 7 and 5. The constant change in arm elevation and rotation will help fight muscular fatigue. 

4) Optimize your eyes. Make sure you’re always driving with the correct lenses or glasses if you need them. Avoiding eye strain will not only ease ocular muscle tension and headache pain, but you won’t be straining your neck to help you see better. Also, try to not lock your vision on one thing (such as the license plate ahead of you). This places your muscular system on autopilot and produces muscular rigidity. By simply looking around your visual field, your muscular system has to stay alert and flexible. This keeps pain low!

5) Try to stay relaxed. Driving, especially in traffic, is stressful! Be mindful of any bad habits you may be slipping in to such as white knuckles on the steering wheel, clenching your teeth, holding your breath. This will all add to muscular rigidity and increase pain. Try listening to calming music or a podcast. You can even try placing stickers at various places in your car. When you see them, check to make sure you’re not clenching (or whatever your habit tends to be) and go about your day!

Happy driving!

Written by Lesley Callaham, MPT, PRC October 8, 2018