Driving: A Literal Pain in the Neck

We know that Oahu traffic can be pretty horrendous.  School drop-off time, rush hour, and even when headed to the beach on the weekends:  it can seem like we are fighting a battle behind the wheel.

Most people are probably not aware of the effect of driving on our spinal health.   Dr. Arthur White’s book The Posture Prescription describes studies in which people who drive for 20 minutes or more to work are far more likely to have back and neck pain than those who do not.  The reasons are unclear.  It may have as much to do with the auto’s vibrations during highway driving as much as the prolonged sitting.  Either way, the negative effects of driving on the spine are profound.

Most of us don’t have the luxury of living next door to our work!  And some of us even must drive on the job (delivery workers, bus drivers, etc).  So we all need to do everything possible to keep our spine protected while driving.


In general, car seats cause the pelvis to rotate backwards, causing the spine to go into excess flexion.  This forces the upper spine including the chest and shoulders go into a slumped position, thrusting the head and neck in front of the body’s line of gravity.  The neck is kinked in this position which accelerates any disk degeneration or arthritis.  What is worse is that over the years, this posture becomes a habit, intensifying the damage.

If your car has an adjustable lumbar support, use it!  Experiment to find what position maintains the best alignment for your spine.  If your car doesn’t have this, you can easily attain the right posture by having a small lumbar pillow in the hollow of the seat.


Driving is a perfect time for isometric abdominal exercises that strengthen the core and spine.  You can take advantage of especially long boring stretches of road to improve your muscle tone.  The Posture Prescription describes neat exercise called “The Dorsal Glide.”  To do this, you simply move your head as far forward as possible to a count of 5, keeping the chin parallel to the ground, and then pull it back slowly for another count of 5, as though you were a clucking chicken.  This can release a lot of strain.

Shoulder shrugs are also helpful while driving and are very helpful for those of us who carry a lot of tension in our necks.  Do do a shrug, draw your shoulders up towards your neck and hold a forced posture.  Then pull down on your shoulders by engaging the Latissimus muscles (along the sides of the rib cage) and feel the difference in the elongation of your neck.  Repeat as often as needed.  Pinched nerve pain from muscle spasm is often made better by this maneuver.

If you prefer a more passive type of exercise, you can do stretching at every stoplight or whenever you are stuck in traffic, not moving.  You can keep both hands on the wheel and tilt your head slowly left and right, bringing your left ear to your left shoulder, and right ear to right shoulder.  For a stronger stretch, use your right hand to reach over your head and cradle your left ear, and gently pull towards your right shoulder.  You will feel the muscle pull and it should feel good, and not too intense.

So even if you are stuck in the car for a long time, there are still things you can do to help your spine.  Fit bodies have fit spines!  And the fit driver is a more alert, and safer driver too – an excellent collateral benefit.

Here at Oahu Spine and Rehab our goal is to make you the healthiest version of  yourself, contact us today if you have any questions.

References:  Arthur White, MD The Posture Prescription, 2001 Three Rivers Press, New York


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