Traveling with a Bad Back
Published: June 2010
By Wendy Brenner
Oh, my aching vacation. Survival tips for traveling with a bad back—pain-free.
One Minute Mystery: Returning from a business trip, on layover in some American airport, you notice a young woman in cowboy boots attempting to hide behind a bank of pay phones. Then she shuts her eyes and squats deeply in the position used by Hindu gods with multiple pairs of arms. Positive you are about to witness something illegal, illicit, or just plain outrageous, you stare—but that's it: she just squats there. No additional arms appear.
On the plane, it turns out she is your seatmate. You never get up the nerve to ask what she was doing earlier—praying? receiving a radio transmission? rearranging illegal substances secreted on her person?—though you do observe, for the record, that she is wearing a thumb ring. Should you later be contacted by the authorities regarding this woman, you are prepared. Although it's only a 70-minute flight, the woman makes four trips to the back of the plane, each time toting two of those Chiclet-size airline pillows and what appears to be an orange golf ball. She has the aisle seat, so technically she isn't disturbing you, but still, it's hard not to wonder. What could explain the woman's odd behavior?
The answer (which would be printed upside down if this were a real One Minute Mystery) won't surprise anyone who suffers from chronic back problems. The woman was me, the squat is a hatha yoga posture, and the golf ball was recommended by a shiatsu practitioner—I lie on it, and it breaks up muscle spasms. (How do the thumb ring and cowboy boots fit in? They don't; they're just what I wear.)
According to a pamphlet my physical therapist gave me, even prehistoric cave drawings show evidence of back injuries. This fact is illustrated by a cartoon of a caveman with stars and lightning bolts emanating from his lower back, telling his caveman friend about it in caveman language: "Bu urac sa kpacus tei!!" Of course we don't know exactly what he's saying—"All I did was sneeze!" or "Apparently I have offended the gods yet again!" or "I must see Dr. Kpacus!"—but the point seems to be that there is no cure for back pain, so we have to learn to live with it. (Incidentally, doctors should never give such pamphlets to their writer patients. I have spent more happy hours translating that caveman sentence than I'll ever spend on the pamphlet's recommended exercises.) There are endless, often contradictory, ways of addressing back pain—dry heat, wet heat, firm beds, waterbeds, exercise, rest—but the important thing to remember is that we must adapt our ornery backs to our busy lives rather than the other way around.
Anyone who has a bad back but refuses to give up traveling for business or pleasure will be at least passingly familiar with the type of behavioral oddities described above, and will likely be able to add a few pointers. Every back-pain sufferer has his own travel bag of tricks by which he swears. This is why otherwise dignified adults can be seen squatting and arm-swinging and lying prone in crowded airports everywhere, or on the shoulders of highways, oblivious to the shocked stares of strangers. It is why people assume worshipful postures before apparently blank walls in the ornate lobbies of famous museums and theaters, or turn their backs on, literally lean on, the great natural and man-made structures of the world. At the ancient Mayan ruins, one contemplates not how the temples were constructed or what they signified, but whether there's any place to lie down on them. Travelers with bad backs are something like a secret society—once initiated, you recognize fellow members by the inexplicable-to-outsiders rituals they perform.
A 60-year-old colleague of mine likes to hang from door frames (by his hands, not the once-popular gravity boots) and tries to stay only in hotel rooms whose door frames have "that little ledge" for easy gripping. He will actually phone hotels in advance to ask the desk staff if the rooms have that little ledge. If they say they don't know, he will request politely that they go look. I know a hairstylist who frequently visits professional hair shows and will not travel without a bag of frozen peas—a malleable, disposable ice pack—for her shoulder. She transports them in a miniature picnic cooler, which I imagine makes the peas feel very important: born mere peas, now as heroic as any donor organ.
We know we look bizarre to others, but we don't care. Traveling with a bad back is like traveling with a small child—it is liable to act up at any moment, so one takes whatever preventive measures are necessary. Embarrassment is not a consideration. In fact, not only are we unashamed of our weird behavior; we're also a little proud of it, of the extraordinary survival skills we've had to develop. Several years ago, when I was beginning graduate school and still a bad-back novice, I moved myself from Chicago to Florida in my grandmother's 1973 Chevy Impala, a model that offered snazzy herringbone upholstery but no built-in lumbar support. Drifting painfully off to sleep in an interstate motel at the end of my first day of driving, seriously worried whether I would make it through the next, I had a spiritual vision: I saw my wooden cutting board. It was packed in a box of kitchen things in the car's trunk. But I could get it out of the trunk, I could use it! (Translation for the uninitiated: I could place it behind my back while driving.) I have never forgotten that small miracle; today I still enjoy an absurdly warm relationship with that cutting board.
Of course, one can now shop national bad-back catalogues and specialty stores for equipment that sometimes suspiciously resembles airline pillows and golf balls. But while special services and appliances can be helpful, there is something liberating and deeply satisfying, perhaps even inherently American, about knowing one can make do without them. My cutting-board revelation, I recall, made me feel as though I'd just earned some kind of grown-up Girl Scout honor badge. And perhaps I had—perhaps that was my moment of initiation into the secret society. On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., I observed an Asian woman sitting, eyes closed, at the edge of my hotel's Jacuzzi, massaging the sole of her foot with the plastic handle of a screwdriver. If she'd opened her eyes, I would have winked at her.
Watch Your Back: Useful Stores and Catalogues
Back Be Nimble 800/639-3746 (U.S. only) or 713/521-0003; http://www.backbenimble.com/. A complete on-line catalogue of self-care products, orthopedic supplies, mattresses, and ergonomic furniture. Travel-related items include the Tempur-Pedic pillow; a swivel seat cushion for getting in and out of a car; the Relaxor massage pad for sitting in a car or at the office; the BackRest self-inflatable back support; and orthopedic satin pillows. There's a retail store at 2405 Rice Boulevard, Houston.
Healthy Back Store 800/469-2225; http://www.healthyback.com. Order from this extensive catalogue on-line or by mail, or visit five retail locations (in Rockville, Maryland; Raleigh, North Carolina; Springfield and Vienna, Virginia; and Washington, D.C.). Employees are trained by physical therapists, and products can be returned within a 90-day period. Popular items include the Cascade self-inflating backrest (air is rolled out for easy storage) and the Drive Away Back Pain audiocassette, which provides back-protection tips and gentle exercises that can be done while driving.
Relax the Back Stores 800/290-2225; http://www.relaxtheback.com/ The largest specialty retailer of back-care products, this national franchise has 80 stores in the United States and Canada. Its Business Traveler's Survival Kit includes a travel pillow, a neck rest, a stress belt, Viscolas insoles, an Accu-Masseur, and more. Recommended: lightweight, stackable, collapsible luggage by Tutto.
Wendy Brenner's first collection of stories is Large Animals in Everyday Life, winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award (W. W. Norton, 1997).
Even "bad backers" are entitled to a good night's sleep, and there's nothing like a long trip for a flare-up of pain. These places offer bed boards, massage therapy, and other soothing services:
Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts 800/332-3442; http://www.fourseasons.com. Sealy Posture-lux 4000 mattresses—specially made for Four Seasons—have become so popular that all members of the chain sell them.
San Ysidro Ranch 900 San Ysidro Lane, Montecito, Calif.; 805/ 969-5046. The famously bad-backed JFK honeymooned here. Request one of the cottages with a private outdoor Jacuzzi.
Hotel Okura Tokyo 800/223-6800. The Jet Lag Plan includes stretching programs and "jet-stream" baths. Test-drive the super-contoured, "body-sonic" chair. Then, before retiring to your room, select a specialized pillow that suits you. And forget bed boards! For the stiffest bed around, go traditional: a Japanese-style room with a mat on the floor.
Savoy Group 800/637-2869, http://www.savoygroup.com/. That's five fine English hotels: the Savoy, Claridge's, the Berkeley, the Lygon Arms, and the Connaught. They've been making their own mattresses for years, and if you find you want to spend the rest of your life on one of them, order it from Savoy Group Services (44-181/648-7701).