How to avoid back pain when driving 

x-ray of person driving car skeleton
A poor seating position can exacerbate lower back pain Credit: Getty Images

Four out of five people suffer from lower back pain. And while cars might not be the primary cause, they certainly aggravate the problem. But rather than blaming car makers for making uncomfortable seats, experts think many drivers should look in the mirror. 

Osteopaths and chiropractors agree that many of us are in too much of a hurry to get going rather than taking the time to set the driving position up properly.

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However, that doesn’t entirely absolve car companies of blame. Although significantly better than even a decade ago, cars it seems still aren’t as kind to our backs as they could be.

Rishi Loatey from the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) said: “The trouble is cars are designed for the average person. But we are all different shapes and sizes.” 

Can car seat makers do more to help? Credit: EPA

Osteopath Brian McIlwraith conducted extensive research in the mid-Nineties into the effect that driving various cars has on our backs. Although he believes car makers have identified and solved many of the problems, he added: “There are still some cars where the wheel is at an angle which makes the driver’s shoulders rotate compared to their pelvis. I’d also like to see more cars with adjustable lumbar support that goes up and down to enable different heights of driver to get comfortable.”

The BCA’s Rishi Loatey said: “Car makers are making a decent fist of it but they could probably do more. I had one patient who bought a new version of the same model of car. The manufacturer had moved the gear lever up and forwards so from being perfectly comfortable my patient had a car that caused her back problems.”

Robin Lansman, president of the Institute of Osteopathy, agrees with Loatey and McIlwraith that drivers could do more to make themselves comfortable. He says: “People just want to jump into their car and go. Then when they have a problem they come to see us. They don’t act pre-emptively so really they are not getting value from the thing they’ve spent their money on.”

Of course, setting your car up to be comfortable is a very personal thing. All three experts believe people should consider the seating position more when they buy a new car.

Lansman said: “They choose cars on what they look like, the fuel consumption, safety, just about anything apart from how suitable they are for their back.”

However, car makers can only do so much. The major problem is that the human body isn’t designed to spend long periods of time sitting down. Doing just that is exactly what driving entails and it’s combined with using our feet which means we can’t support or stabilise our lower body, as we might when sitting in a chair.

Old cars such as this Aston Martin DB2-4 had sprung seats that were comfortable but adequate support wasn't a concern

However, there are two things we can do. The major cause of back trouble is when our hips are higher than our knees. This puts pressure on the discs in the lower back. Loatey says: “Cars with higher seating positions such as the Vauxhall Zafira or BMW X5 are very good for your back.” 

And we need to take a break more frequently. Lansman added: “The longer you sit, the more tired you become and the harder your back has to work to keep you upright. You might not feel any pain, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for you.”

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