How to relieve muscle and joint pain before, during and after a long flight

Not all of us have an extra couple hundred bucks lying around to spend toward business class seats that offer miles and miles of legroom. For us economy section dwellers, sitting in one contorted, squished position isn’t only painful, it can wreak havoc on our nervous system, which can promote anxiety, congestion and headaches, according to Lauren Roxburgh, celebrity alignment and foam rolling expert, and author of The Power Source.

“When we fly we get so much tension from sitting in a tight space, hunching over to look at our phones or computers, and just spending a lot of time stuck in one space,” said Roxburgh. “Also, the stress that comes with travel can manifest as tension and tightness in our body, especially in our upper body and neck where we tend to hold a lot of stress.”

While the pain and tension can crop up in places you never knew existed, she said lower back tightness or sciatic nerve pain is particularly common because “sitting in a tight space for such a long time can force your body out of alignment and compresses the back.”

Here’s how to prevent and relieve pain so you can actually enjoy your trip.

What to do before the flight

Make pain prevention as much a part of your pre-travel routine as, say, packing your suitcase and taking out foreign currency.

“Stretching and foam rolling before a flight can be so helpful when it comes to preventing pain,” said Roxburgh. “Not only does the stretching and rolling release any tension before travel, but it also will help calm your mind and your nervous system, and reduce overall tension from travel. Foam rolling in particular can really help with your alignment and tissue hydration, which are key to preventing pain in the first place.”

For starters, bring a travel-sized foam roller with you to the airport and find a comfortable quiet area near your gate. Roxburgh said even five to 10 minutes rolling with it against a wall or seat will make a world of difference (avoid the floor at all costs if possible — it’s not the most hygienic place to roll around). Here’s a helpful guide to foam rolling against a wall courtesy of rotator cuff rehab specialist Dr. John Blenio.

“My favorite moves to help prevent upper body and neck tension are the upper body roll, the neck roll, and shoulder blade massage,” Roxburgh said. (You can see similar moves in this helpful tutorial from Yoga Dose.)

For lower back pain, she recommended elevating your hips on the roller, as shown below, since that position takes pressure off of your spine and helps decompress the back.

Manu Padilla/Shutterstock

What to do during the flight

There’s only so much you can do without disturbing your fellow passengers, but with a little creativity, your trip will be off to a pain-free start.

“During the flight, anything you can do to bring awareness to your posture and reduce tension is key,” said Roxburgh.

This includes taking a walk up and down the aisles every hour, performing seated twists, rolling your ankles in both directions, raising your heels when you’re standing in line for the lavatory, rolling a tennis ball on the soles of your feet to self-massage or using your foam roller behind your shoulders and sacrum to relieve pain while you’re seated. In this video, Yogea Yoga demonstrates seated twists and other tension-relieving moves to perform on an airplane.

“Plus, stretching and deep breathing are all helpful to keep your circulation pumping and prevent your body from getting congested,” said Roxburgh.

What to do after the flight

Those initial moments of stretching your legs once your flight lands and the seatbelt sign is turned off can feel euphoric — but they’re not enough to offset all the damage of sitting in one cramped spot for several hours.

This is where your foam roller will come in handy once again. Roxburgh said performing some twists on it will help boost circulation and get your lymph fluid flowing in order to relieve congestion.

Beyond the physical pain of sitting for too long, flying can be disorienting, which is in and of itself a special, confusing brand of pain. “After you fly, one of the best things you can do is go outside, get some fresh air and sun, and do some grounding,” said Roxburgh. “Grounding is the practice of coming into direct contact with the earth, so walk with bare feet in the grass, or in the sand if you’re near a beach.”