Could the Way You Drive Be Causing Back Problems?

These seven simple ergonomic fixes can ensure a more comfortable (and safe) trip

Photo: Man driving his car

We spend a lot of time sitting—on average 13 hours each day. And while it might seem like a comfortable position at the time, remaining seated for long periods puts pressure on the lumbar discs, which in turn affects your nerves. Not surprisingly, this leads to serious back pain over time.

Many workplaces have taken note of this, incorporating ergonomics—or the science of arranging things so that people interact most efficiently and safely—into office design. That means chairs, screens, and desks are optimized to have workers sit in a more upright, healthy way. Sometimes that means removing the option to sit altogether.

But there's another location where you spend a lot of time sitting, especially if you commute, as over 85 percent of Americans do: your car.

Poor positioning in the driver's seat can lead to lower back pain, foot cramps, a stiff neck, sore shoulders, and finger cramping. And to boot, your posture isn't as easy to adjust mid-drive as it would be if you were sitting behind a desk. But finding the right position prior to turning the key isn't difficult. You just need to know what steps to take first.

Prep before you get in the car. Empty your pockets of keys, wallet, and objects like breath mints. Those small items can press on a nerve as you drive, potentially causing pain or reducing circulation. If there's something you need (think sunglasses, a bottle of water, those mints, and the wallet you just took out of your pocket), keep it in a nearby cupholder.

Raise your seat. According to a report from the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) Ergonomics Program, drivers should set their seats as high as is comfortable to ensure the road is entirely visible. You should be able to see at least three inches over the top of the steering wheel.

Adjust your mirrors. You don't want to have to crane your neck to see your rearview or side mirrors. Make sure all mirrors are fully visible at a glance.

Check your tilt. Most cars seats have a backward-and-forward option. Keeping the position at 100 to 110 degrees (at a slight recline) puts the least amount of pressure on your back while fully supporting it. Lean too far back (past 110 degrees) and your head and neck may stretch forward, causing pain. Sitting too upright can make your entire body stiff.

Notice your feet. Make sure that you can push the pedals easily with your whole foot—not just your toes. You can adjust your seat positioning forward until you have full control of the pedals.

Check your head. The top of your seat should align with the top of your head. Adjust its angle until it's almost touching your head while you are in your driving posture.

Watch the wheel. The best position for the steering wheel's center is about 10 to 12 inches from the driver's breastbone, per the APHIS Ergonomics Program report. Your arms should feel comfortable, not too high or too low, when both hands are on the wheel.