Vehicle Ergonomics


Vehicle Ergonomics

Vehicle ergonomics can play a significant role in preventing and/or improving neck and back pain related to driving.  When we drive, all the fundamentals of ergonomics come into play:  posture, force, and repetition.  Just simply putting your hands on the steering wheel increases tension in the shoulders.  The most significant contributors to increased neck pain while driving is insufficient head room and inadequate positioning.  Maintaining good, balanced driving posture can reduce the amount of strain in the neck, shoulders and the lower back.  Here are some tips on how to reduce strain in your back and neck with driving:

Good, Balanced Driving Posture

  • Hips all the way back in the seat
  • Hips slightly higher than knees, if possible. Use a stress wedge if needed.
  • Midback supported by the backrest
  • Arms held in a neutral position and hands on the steering wheel at approximately 4 o’clock and 8 o’clock positions.
  • Feet can reach the gas and break pedals without reaching from the hips.

Vehicle Tips For Your Back:

  • A vehicle that sits high off the curb, an SUV, truck or van is better than a sports car
  • Enter a car by sitting down first, and then swing the legs in rather than climbing foot first into the vehicle.  Reverse this process when getting out, swinging both legs out first.
  • Automatic transmissions are less straining than manual
  • Adjust the lumbar support so it adequately supports the inward curve of your low back.  Or, you can add one using a small pillow, lumbar roll, or rolled up towel.
  • Use a foam wedge to elevate your pelvis and add extra support if your seat has lost some rigidity
  • The seat should be adjustable in tilt and height independently of each other, creating a space of 2-3 finger widths from the back of the knee to the seat

Vehicle Tips For Your Neck and Shoulders:

  • Avoid leaning forward as you sit in the seat, keep your shoulders back
  • Position the car seat so your arms are not fully extended
  • The back rest should come to shoulder height and not obstruct your rear vision
  • Choose an adjustable steering wheel, one that moves in/out and up/down, and tilt
  • Ensure you have proper head room and leg room
  • Look for a car with power steering

Dehydration and Back Pain

We’ve all heard it before, drink more water!  But many people are unaware of the importance of fluid intake as it relates to back pain and the overall role hydration plays in keeping our body healthy. Approximately 50-60% of our body weight is water weight. Our bodies need water to help with digestion and eliminate waste.

Water also helps to fill our cells with fluid which in turn cushions and lubricates our joints. The intervertebral discs of the spine are composed primarily of water, when we stand all day it results in compression of the disc and results in loss of water from the disc. When we lie down at night to sleep our body needs to re-hydrate our discs, which is where proper hydration comes into play!

Insufficient water intake can lead to muscle spasm and renal dysfunction.  By the time our brain registers that we are thirsty our bodies are already in a dehydrated state. Furthermore, as we age our thirst mechanism decreases so individuals may not ever register thirst. Also, many of the other drinks we consume i.e. coffee, tea, and pop all contribute to dehydration.

A simple equation to determine fluid needs – for every pound of body weight you need about a half an ounce of fluid intake per day. For example, if you weigh 140 pounds x 0.5 = 70 ounces; 70 ounces divided by 8 = 9 cups of fluid per day.

Prevention and Treatment of Headaches


The #1 way to prevent cervicogenic headaches (HA’s), or HA’s that begin in the neck or base of the skull, is good posture!  This includes keeping your head back with your ears directly over your shoulders, especially while using a computer or mobile device, as well as while driving.  When we assume a forward head posture, the stress and strain that’s placed on the structures of our cervical spine (neck) is significantly increased.

Good work station ergonomics is also key to sitting (or standing) with good posture.  Be sure your low back is well supported while seated, and that your elbows are bent 90 degrees while using a keyboard.  Most importantly, position your monitor so that your eyes are level with the top 1/3 of the screen.  If you use a laptop for longer than 30 minutes at a time, consider getting a docking station and an external monitor and keyboard.

Another way to prevent HA’s is by maintaining good mobility via regular stretching and cardiovascular (CV) exercise.  You should try to stretch all of the muscles in the front, side and back of your neck at least 3x/week.  Be sure to hold these stretches for a minimum of 30 seconds, repeat each twice, and never stretch to the point of pain.

The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of CV exercise per week, such as 30 minutes, 5x/week.  Among its MANY benefits, CV exercise helps to increase the mobility of all of your joints by increasing your blood supply.  This, in turn, increases the amount of oxygen and nutrition that is supplied to the muscles and joints of your neck (as well as all other areas of your body).


The first thing to do to relieve cervicogenic HA’s is to release the tight muscles at the base of your skull, as this is oftentimes a major contributor.  Place a rolled up hand towel under your neck while lying on your back.  Next, place two tennis balls in a sock and position them directly under the base of your skull.  Maintain this position for at least 5 minutes, until these muscles begin to relax.

Once you’ve release these tight muscles, you then need to activate them by performing repeated chin tucks (i.e. deep neck flexor head nods).  After removing the tennis balls, your head should lie flat on the floor or mattress with no pillow under your head.  Next, perform 10 chin tucks for 10 seconds each.  A physical therapist can best teach you how to properly and effectively perform this exercise.  Research shows that repeated chin tucks are the most effective way to reduce cervicogenic HA’s by “waking up” your deep neck flexors, which are your primary cervical (neck) stabilizers.  Traumatic injuries such as whiplash can cause these muscles to become inhibited, or “go to sleep”.  This increases the stress, strain and load on all of the structures of your neck, which in turn leads to HA’s.  By performing these exercises 1-2x daily, you teach these muscles how to fire again, thus decreasing the amount of load on the cervical spine.  This, in turn, decreases cervicogenic HA’s!