Medical Musings, Health Hypotheses & Therapeutic Thoughts
Tips For Self-Help On Long Flights - What You Can Really Do In Your Aeroplane Seat?
Or perhaps you travel regularly (or sporadically) for work and in that case, I hope you sometimes manage to swing it your way; take leave where a few extra days can be spent relaxing and enjoying the destination.
Many of us know that the flight may not be the most comfortable of experiences, especially for international travel as Australia is a far-off distant island.
Despite the airline and staffs’ (best??) efforts, the in-flight environment is not the most comfortable, can lead to muscle tightness, aches and pains and feeling of being generally unwell.
If you have an existing issue, the prospect of starting and finishing a holiday with plane travel may seem a little bit much.
The prolonged sitting and inactivity usually leads to tightness and aches, but when you’re confined in close quarters on an airplane, the conditioned and pressurised air of the cabin means there’s less available oxygen (compared to the oxygen content found at sea levels).
That stresses our body, and reduced air humidity pushes our system towards dehydration; so it’s not surprising we feel tighter and achier than usual.
Crossing many time zones at accelerated pace disrupts our body clock and that added fatigue from jet lag can be a real challenge to deal with, which is a contributing factor to our aches and pains.
We’re made for movement; muscles contractions aid circulation of blood and lymphatic fluid, returning blood from the limbs to the heart with the pumping of the leg muscles.
When stationary, due to the lack of motion and downward pull of gravity, blood tends to pool in the vessels of the legs and fluid collects in the tissues, so it’s common that some swelling of the feet and ankles, even calves may occur on long flights.
A heightened risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) has been associated with aeroplane travel. That’s why many health professionals recommend mobility exercises whilst flying and other strategies to reduce venous blood pooling in the legs where there’s the potential for clots to form.
If you are concerned or have health conditions, it’s best to consult your GP regarding their recommendations for your individual needs.
So what can we do to limit the discomfort whilst flying?
A little while ago I was unexpectedly given the opportunity to visit France for a short while. So exciting, I shifted a few things around, booked the best/shortest flights I could (though there were a few more stop overs on the way home than I would have liked), packed light and set off.
Whilst traveling my aim was to be able to enjoy the time away as pain free as possible – I spent less than two weeks overseas, so not one day could be wasted!
I myself experience a chronic pain condition so I get a bit nervous about flying for long periods; I haven’t been caught out yet (touch wood).
I put all my own personal strategies into place; a good neck rest, brought my small handheld self-massage tools that I found in Kmart, frequently asked the flight attendants for water to remain hydrated and attempted to book an aisle seat for every flight.
Aisles are great as you can stretch out a little more and get up on your terms, I recommend it if you’re prone to aches and pains.
My experience as a single traveller has often seen me being moved around to different seats to accommodate those travelling together who didn't end with adjacent assigned seats; sometimes without asking my permission!
It's always frustrating, and it happened on the trip back, with me being moved to a window for the 14 hours flight from Dubai to Sydney. This made it significantly harder to perform my management strategies. This 'compulsory' seat-moving can be especially hard to resist if don't look sick or disabled; as many young chronic pain sufferers can attest. Try to be assertive; you have paid for your flight, and should not have to put up with discomfort because other people are too disorganised to arrange their seating!
You can always call the airline beforehand to emphasise that you don't want to be moved, so there is a record of your request to aid your case.
You could also request your osteopath or GP to write you a letter highlighting the importance of your preferred seating arrangements, which may also be helpful when dealing with recalcitrant staff and passengers.
I was so grateful that on my two connection flights over to Europe I was granted the requested aisle seat, it made the world of difference!
When travelling, if you have health conditions or general concerns, it’s always best to consult your GP. Your osteopath or other musculoskeletal based allied health practitioners could make recommendations regarding exercises and mobility, tailoring advice to suit your specific individual needs.
I was keen to trial some mobilisations, seated stretches and exercises that I usually recommend to patients in the course of treatment. I was disappointed that in practice I could complete very few of them successfully in the space available. Airline seats have gotten smaller over the last decade or so, to the detriment of mobility.
These mobilisations and exercises throughout this blog I could complete without too much trouble.
If you have other stretches and exercises that you regularly do, there’s the option of attempting some of these in the areas near the toilets and galleys. I carried out a few leg stretches for my hamstrings, hip flexor muscles, calves in these area when I got up for walks.
If flying, I encourage you to try the best you can and plan ahead, that’s what I did.
In between reading, watching films or other activities, remember to listen to your body, get up, wiggle, change position and do a little mobilisation or stretching so that once you arrive, hopefully the aches and pains felt on the flight will be minimal and you can get on with the enjoying your time away.
Diagrams referenced from PhysioTools Software
Bartholomew, J. R., & Evans, N. S. (2019). Travel-related venous thromboembolism. Vascular Medicine, 24(1), 93-95.
Cannegieter, S. C., & Rosendaal, F. R. (2019). Travelers' Thrombosis. In Travel Medicine (pp. 469-473). Elsevier.
Fowler, P., Duffield, R., & Vaile, J. (2015). Effects of simulated domestic and international air travel on sleep, performance, and recovery for team sports. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 25(3), 441-451.
Thibeault, C., & Evans, A. D. (2015). AsMA medical guidelines for air travel: stresses of flight. Aerospace medicine and human performance, 86(5), 486-487.