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Travel Pillows for Neck Pain

Updated on May 11, 2018
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I am a writer, teacher, and parent. I have suffered from neck pain for years, and I'm always looking for solutions.

A Travel Pillow Cares for Your Neck

A good travel pillow is more than just a comfort aid. These pillows also protect your neck and upper back from the painful stress of air, train, and car travel. There are an increasing number of options for those of us who need a quality inflatable pillow for neck support while traveling. This article discusses some of your options, and also makes recommendations based on research and personal experience. The inflatable pillows discussed here are affordable, easy to pack, and time-tested by thousands of users around the world. I hope some of what I've learned from experience is of use to you, and makes your next travel experience a little more comfortable.

Travel Can Hurt Your Back

The stress and strain of travel can be a serious issue for people with neck and back conditions. Travel, whether in a car or a plane, puts you in positions that are not always safe for your spine. Add to that the bumos and jolts of traveling, and you have a recipe for pain, if not actual injury.

From my own experience, I have to go any distance in a car, or fly somewhere, I can pretty much count on my neck and upper back going bad on me. It seems like no matter what I do, including taking the muscle-relaxers my doctor prescribed, I still wind up in pain. If you have neck pain when you have to sit in a car or plane, then maybe some of what I've learned can help you too. I have found a few quality inflatable travel pillows that actually make a difference.

Finding Comfort on a Plane or in a Car

Aside from the bumps and swerves of travel, the stress of travel can add to our neck and back discomfort. Having to deal with tickets, departure lines, and hauling luggage sets us up for neck tensions, which can serve to inflame and sensitize connective tissue throughout the neck and shoulders. I'm not sure if my travel discomfort causes my anxiety or the other way around, but either way it's literally a pain for me to sit in a car or plane seat for any length of time. I'm totally fine once we get to where we're going, but the process of getting there is a real drag.

Exploring is one of my favorite things to do, but I don't really want to be in a tour group. I like doing it alone or with whomever I'm traveling with.

— Tia Mowry

A Quality, Top-Rated Travel Pillow

I travel a lot, and it's hard on my neck. I have been through quite a few travel pillows and cushions, and they all fell short in one way or another, especially those cheap inflatable models. I'm sensitive to temperature, so I was made miserable by travel pillows with synthetic covers that made my face sweat -- no fun!

Finally I found one that actually helps: it's a specially made travel pillow by Cabeau. It's a cool memory foam travel pillow with some really great features:

  • Memory foam pillow stays cool and comfortable
  • Designed with cooling air circulation vents that eliminate heat and wick away sweat
  • 360 degree head and neck support for ultimate comfort when your head falls forward or to the side
  • This contour pillow is designed with a removable cover making it easy to wash and eliminate germs
  • The best travel pillow for any trip; includes attachable deluxe travel bag and memory foam ear plugs

I've gotten to where I won't get in a car, and definitely not on a plane, without this travel pillow.

One Travel Pillow that did NOT Work for Me!

One product I tried but ultimately gave up on: those big lean-forward pillows that look like a big wedge. You put them on your lap or drink table and lean face-first onto them. These are supposed to be just about the best thing since sliced bread when it comes to comfort while traveling, especially on planes, but it did not work for me. For one thing, I was super self-conscious lugging this huge wedge thing onto the plane. I was even more self-conscious positioning it in front of me, blocking out the screen on the seat-back. And I was basically miserable as I face-planted onto this big cushion that took up my whole space. Way to self-conscious to relax, let alone fall asleep. My neck hurt the whole time, too. So no, not a fan of the on-board seat-wedge.

Neck and Back Physiology

The Effects of Car Travel on Your Neck and Back Muscles

A recent SpineUniverse article by Alan Hedge, PhD, CPE, asked whether there ws any evidence that car travel is linked to pain in the neck and back. It's not surprising to find that there are correlations, given that the way we sit in a car is an unnatural position for the spine. According to Dr. Hedge, "If your car isn't moving, then sitting in a driving seat probably isn't much different to sitting in a padded chair, but as soon as the vehicle starts moving things change. Unlike regular sitting, while a vehicle is in motion the body is subject to different forces: to accelerations and decelerations, to lateral swaying from side to side, and to whole-body up and down vibrations." [SpineUniverse.com].

So no, it's not in our imagination. Car travel is a real challenge to your spine and your neck, and anything we can do to cushion the blows of this unnatural experience is going to help us have a pain-free trip.

Air Travel and Neck Pain

I have actually dealt better with air travel than with car travel, with one exception: landing. I literally dread the moment when the plane touches down, because that's when the worst jolt to my neck and back hits. Landing hurts my neck, and the rougher the landing, the worse the pain. Some pilots can touch down like you're landing on a pile of feather pillows, but others just slam that baby onto the runway at full speed. Not only does that scare the you-know-what out of me, it also gives me a pain in my neck.

It probably won't surprise you to heat that there's medical evidence that backs this up. A good article by Stewart G. Eidelson, MD, on one of my favorite sites, SpineUniverse.com, revealed some findings from a survey of back pain sufferers:

  • 95% of survey takers who had flown AirTran said their seats were uncomfortable or even very uncomfortable.
  • 86% of JetBlue fliers rated their seats as bad for the back or neck.
  • American Airlines and United Airlines have uncomfortable seats, too, according to the survey. For American, 70% of people didn't like their seats.
  • 67% of United's fliers didn't like their seats either.


Happy, Pain-Free Travels to You!

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