desert road in California
Prevent your spine from resembling this sign | Sergey Novikov/Shutterstock
Prevent your spine from resembling this sign | Sergey Novikov/Shutterstock

Road Trip Remedies: How to Soothe an Achy Body When Traveling

Sometimes the open road is the cure for all that ails. When that fails, read this.

Fasten your seatbelt and adjust your mirrors—this is Rerouting, your one-stop-shop for mapping out the ultimate summer road trip, no matter what gets your engine going. Cruise over to the rest of our coverage for pit stops at offbeat roadside attractions, sweeping desert panoramas, epic mountaintop vistas, oceanfront oyster bars, dynamic public art, and so much more.

It's another year of The Great American Road Trip, and we are very much into it. There’s so much of this vast, multifaceted country to explore: giant roadside dinosaurs to ogle, alien brothel houses to... take a picture of, regional styles of BBQ to fight over, mountains to trek and language to pin down (when is it pop? When is it Coke? What is a bubbler?).

On the road, the journey is a gift. But sometimes it can be torture. Sitting in one place for hours—either as driver or passenger—can wreak havoc on the body. “It’s prolonged seating at low frequency,” explains Lara Katsman, massage therapist and Creative Director at Haven Spa in New York City. “Monotonous vibrations, and millions of repetitions of the same movements, like pressing on the accelerator and brakes. The whole situation eventually leads to aches and pains.”

Swelling and stiffness tend to pop up at the most inopportune times, like, say, when it’s time to get out and explore, or sleep. Then there’s what happens to our insides with a steady diet of road-trip food. To prep for another year on the road, we spoke with Katsman about simple ways to take care of—even pamper—your body when life happens at 70mph. (Pro tip: pack bergamot.)

A road trip often means being in a car for long periods of time. What parts of your body should you be most concerned about?

Whether you’re aware of it or not, the lower parts of your body get the most abuse. Your feet are very active in the car while you’re driving. Basically what you’re doing in the car— you have them kind of in the air, and you’re performing acrobatic exercises. You’re doing these manipulations without thinking about it. It’s Cirque du Soleil in the car.

There was a study published in the International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health about those who drive for a living experiencing whole-body vibrations. For example: the Uber driver, the long-distance truck driver, those who are in the car all the time. They found out that they have twice the risk of experiencing sciatica and lower-back pain compared to individuals who do not drive that often. So, it’s not just sitting; it’s how the body adjusts in the long term. Uber and Lyft driver clients just describe the same thing over and over again: pain in the lower back and legs.

So what can we do to prevent pain?

(joking) A Tesla would be my first suggestion.

But really, start with lumbar support when you sit. That’s very simple: roll a sweatshirt or towel—whatever you have with you—to put behind your lower back and provide back support. It’s very easy. Second, adjust your seat and headrest. This is the most important. The headrest should be in the middle of your head. And keep your shoulders a little bit behind your hips but not too much. We’re not in the Roman Symposium, like halfway leaning down on the chair, but we need to make sure that the shoulders are slightly behind the hips.

feet hanging out of a car window
Not the ideal driving position | RossHelen/Shutterstock

What should you do with your upper body while driving?

Notice how you hold the steering wheel. Some drive with one hand, some drive with another hand. When I have my left and right hands at 9 o'clock and 3 o’ clock, that’s the easiest, because you can actually rest the elbows on the armrests, if the vehicle has it. This way, you don’t compress and stress your back. Which is a big deal, because you don’t pay attention to this.

Should I opt for a heated seat?

You have to play with it very carefully. Of course, when it’s cold, it’s nice to have your lower back heated, especially when you’re driving in the car for so long. But don’t keep it on the whole time, because it will do the opposite. Most people think, “Okay, if I have an achy back in general, I will sleep on this heated blanket; it will help me.” Wrong. You’re gonna wake up completely crumpled. Because it increases inflammation. We have aches and pains because we have a little bit of inflammation going on, and it’s a good sign because you know you have to do something about it. But use heat just for about 15 minutes then turn it off, because you’re gonna screw yourself completely.

Rather than enhance inflammation, we need to decrease it. And for that we can use something like ice packs, or something cold from the cooler. Put it underneath your lower back and it will decrease inflammation and relieve the back pain.

Okay, you’re done driving for the day. What can you do to alleviate tension and prepare yourself for the next day on the road?

The best option now is to have some basic stretches. Everything you do in the car, you do the opposite when you’re not in a car. Because you’re constantly sitting in this 90-degree position, when you’re in a hotel or even in the parking lot, do the opposite. Lean backward to really stretch your belly muscles, because they were compressed the whole time. Same with the legs. Stretch the back of the legs, because that’s what you compress when you’re driving.

a green tent in a campsite
Utilize the rocks around your campsite. | Virrage Images/Shutterstock

Is elevation advisable?

Without a doubt. The whole trip you kept your feet and legs down there. Gravity doesn’t help. And so you need to do the opposite. Elevate them. We used to say to clients: do the alphabet. You basically draw the letters in the air with your foot.

This is the same advice you’d give to hikers after a long day, right?

For sure. At home, I have a reflexology mat. On the surface, it has different sizes of hard bubbles that are kind of like an imitation of the reflexology pressure points. You step on this mat with both feet; you lean on one foot for 15 seconds, then another one, and switch from one to another. It gives you a good stimulation of the energy flow, of the circulation, and both those factors promote relaxation. But if you don’t have a mat available, like, say you’re at a camping site with rocks, take off your sneakers (if the temperature is comfortable) and step on different sizes of rocks. It’s going to imitate it perfectly, if not better, because it’s natural. The stones are already charged with energy, rather than stepping on plastic, which has no energy whatsoever.

What if there are no rocks around?

Basically anything that has a surface that’s different from being flat, anything you can roll on your feet—you can step on them, you can press on different points, that’s better than nothing. Flat surfaces do nothing. Roll tight towels, and if you’re in a hotel, you can contrast the temperatures: one towel in hot water, and another in cold water. You can alternate: left side is on a hot towel, and right side is on a cold towel. And then you switch.

What if we wanted to get fancy with some essential oils?

My favorite to both stimulate and soothe is bergamot oil. It’s a very fresh scent. It’s also very good for improving digestion. And digestion is a crucial factor in how easily we can get relaxed: most of our happy hormones are actually in our guts. Have a bergamot tea, or have the aroma around you in the form of a diffuser or shampoo or soap, or oil that you can put on your elbows or ears; it doesn’t matter what form it comes in. If all you have is an orange or lemon peel, that’s okay too, in very small amounts. You’ll feel focused and relaxed, that’s the key.

dog drinking from a hose
Don't forget to hydrate. | Dusan Zidar/Shutterstock

Also important for our digestion (and overall health): staying hydrated.

Very much so. All the studies say you know, we don’t drink enough, blah blah blah, but especially after a long trip, you definitely need to decompress with extra liquids, because we usually have the heater or A/C on in the car. And not just a few sips—you need to have a few glasses after a long trip.

When you’re dehydrated, you also feel a little achy. Insufficient liquids leads to feeling tension. And your brain is also tense when you’re not hydrated. Hydration in any form counts: it can be tea, it can be different types of water—and don’t hesitate to drink some red wine. That’s also good.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. She will now make sure to always pack some red wine on her road trips.