Preventing Back Problems in High Mileage Jobs

At-work road safety

Preventing Back Problems in High Mileage Jobs


Each day around 90% of journeys are made in a car or vehicle. For millions of us, driving is our primary method of transportation. Whether it’s for pleasure, to go to the supermarket or to commute to work, we spend a lot of time at the wheel. If driving is a part of your job, you’ll cover hundreds of miles per week and for many, this means back problems.

Modern vehicles have much better designs and features than their ancestors but there are still many people who really struggle with back pain due to driving each year.

How is driving different to sitting?

If you are sitting in a car or vehicle that isn’t moving, then you won’t notice a lot of difference to how you sit in a regular, padded chair. When the vehicle starts moving, however, things do change. Unlike when you’re sitting at home, when your car is moving, your body is subjected to forces: acceleration, deceleration, lateral swaying, up and down motions and vibrations. Additionally, when you are driving, your feet are being used continuously to change gear, accelerate and brake. When your feet are being used and are active, they can’t stabilise or support your lower body like they would in a normal sitting position. There is evidence to show that all of these factors in addition to the car seat design, increase the occurrence of back issues for some drivers.

Does research show back problems and driving are linked?

There has been research carried out in laboratories that studied how whole-body vibrations in a car seat affect people. The natural resonant frequency of the lumbar spine is around 4 to 5 Hz. Results show that laboratory-simulated driving can excite this frequency, which might lead to spinal loadings being high in the lower back. In turn, this could result in discomfort and back pain or injury.

What factors are significant when deciding the cause of back pain and its link to driving?

There was a comparative study in Sweden and the USA (PDF file) that showed 50% of drivers questioned had lower back pain. The possible reasons for this included how exposure to vibrations from driving over the long term could cause problems in the neck and back. Another study showed that the risks were significantly greater amongst people who drove long distances each day.

Another factor that appears significant is a person’s gender. A Parisien study of more than 7000 people showed that women had more back pain and more severe back pain than men but that driving was not associated with back pain in women like it was with men.

What about the design of car seats?

There have been extensive studies into the ideal car seat design and in order for the seat to cause the least amount of discomfort, it should:

  • Be adjustable in terms of its incline (to a 100-degree angle from horizontal)
  • Have a changeable seat depth from the back of the seat to the front edge
  • Have an adjustable height
  • Have an adjustable bottom seat incline
  • Have a seat that is a dense foam
  • Have lumbar support that is adjustable both horizontally and vertically
  • Have pulsating lumbar support
  • Have adjustable armrests on both sides
  • Have a head restraint that can be adjusted with a lordosis pad
  • Have shock absorbers in the seats to dampen any vibrating frequencies between 1 and 20 Hz

What to look for when you buy a new car?

It’s highly unlikely for a car seat to have every feature listed in the optimal design above but some designs will cover more than others. In particular, you should pay attention to these 5 guidelines if you are to have optimal back protection when driving.

  1. A comfortable seat. When you sit in the seat, it has to feel comfortable. This is a simple thing to find out but if you already don’t feel comfortable in it in the showroom, you definitely won’t feel comfortable after 50 miles.
  2. Are you able to adjust the seat enough? Can you change the seat distance for longer or shorter legs? Can you change the seat height? Does the backrest change its angle? These are the minimum adjustment features to expect. Other useful ones include whether you can tilt the front seat up or down to avoid it pressing on the back of the knees, lumbar cushion support, headrests and wide arm support that are height adjustable and cushioned.

Other things you should do to avoid back pain when driving

Firstly, you should shift your posture frequently. Make sure you do this at a time when the road conditions are suitable for you to wriggle around in your seat to alleviate any postural fatigue.

Secondly, you should make sure you take frequent brakes. This will minimise driver fatigue as well as postural discomfort. You should take breaks where you can move around and stand up.