Your One-Stop Guide To Staying Healthy On A Long-Haul Flight

29 Aug 2019
POSTED BY Alvin Thomas

About to take-off on a long-haul flight this summer? Swati Basu Das brings you some need-to-know knowledge that could help make those in-flight health-risks a little less turbulent.



In this age of modern air-travel and millions of flights a year –more airlines world-wide are adding long-haul destinations to their itineraries in an effort to attract more passengers and ease the hassle of multi-stop connections.

But as we fly from one time zone to another, hovering at altitudes of 35,000 feet or higher can pose its own risks to our health – especially on long-haul flights of six hours or more. Tiredness, lightheadedness, headaches, pains, cramps, dehydration and the effects of jet-lag are symptoms that many of us experience during air travel and can have the potential to put a damper on the excitement of an impending trip.

And they’re woes that can put down to one, sedentary fact – stationary sitting.

The first effect we’re likely to notice while in air transit is the effect on our back muscles that sitting for long hours in a small, sometimes cramped airplane seat can have.

“Long-haul flights can cause severe neck and back pain due to poor seating posture,” says Dr. Venkateshwaran Arumugham, an orthopaedic specialist at NMC Specialty Hospital in Al Ghubrah.

It can be due to poor lumbar and headrest support on long-haul flights that trigger these symptoms of so-called ‘economy-class syndrome’ such as stiff neck and acute back pain – and even, more dangerously, deep-vein thrombosis (DVT).

“Prolonged sitting in one place in one particular posture and falling asleep while seated in an uncomfortable position without a well-cushioned headrest induces pain,” explains Dr. Arumugham. “Keeping your neck in an odd posture or using gadgets throughout the flight leads to a sore neck. Muscular strains associated with cramps can spark up lower back pain, and ligaments and tendons that contract due to immobility can also increase the risk of strain and back injury.”

So, what to do before you fly? Maintaining a healthy lifestyle and good posture before and after your flight is crucial to help ease and reduce the discomforts associated with long periods of sitting in a confined space – such as an achy neck mid-flight, as well as retaining overall better back health.


Here are some tips to keep in mind before your next journey


Opt for multi-leg flights:

To avoid any negative impacts on health, some passengers may find it beneficial to consider booking a flight with multiple stops when travelling for more than 15 hours. “Breaking up a long flight helps those suffering from lumbar disc issues and acute cervical spondylosis,” says Dr. Arumugham.

Focus on your core activation:

Lack of core support due to cramped seating arrangements in the plane can add stress to vertebrae and the surrounding muscles – which can lead to spasm.

“Twisting your spine or sitting with crossed legs will make things even worse. Tackle the stiff upper or painful lower back by doing some stretches and walking up and down the cabin every thirty minutes. It helps to reduce the pressure on the lower back and activate the core as you sit down again. People with lumbar disc issues must use lumbosacral support belts while travelling and avoid carrying any heavy luggage,” Dr. Arumugham prescribes.

Stretch out to relieve tight hips:

Lack of movement and sitting for hours on-end during a long-haul flight increases the risk of tight hips. As some people are more prone to muscle tightness than others, it’s vital to relax the muscles by stretching your leg forward and doing a few front and side bends. “Flexors are the group of muscles around the hip connecting the upper leg and helping us to bend at the waist and raise our legs,” explains Dr. Arumugham. “It’s very important to keep the legs moving and bend them often while flying to avoid any tension in the flexor muscle. Rotating the hip joints and the ankles will help pump the stasis blood from the limb and will keep you clot-free.”

Dealing with the stiff neck factor:

Maintaining a sedentary position and sleeping in an incorrect posture like laying your head on the tray-table or leaning against the window during flight stiffens the muscles around the neck.

Dr. Arumugham suggests isometric neck exercises while flying for those suffering from neck problems. “A neck-pillow allows you to sleep comfortably without bending your neck,” he says.


Dos and don’ts for a healthy flight


Wear comfortable, loose clothing.

Stay fresh by doing breathing exercises.

Keep medication handy if you’re a patient of acute spondylosis.

Use a travel neck-pillow.

Walking and stretching at regular intervals can reduce muscle tension.

Keep rotating your ankles to avoid swelling.

Drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration.

Stretching exercises before and after the flight will help tone up cramped muscles.

Avoid lifting and carrying heavy luggage. Keep it light.

Eat light and healthy before and during the flight.

Ask for help if symptoms of pain aggravate.


Other risks to consider


‘Jet-bloat’ (a feeling of bloating and gas) is not uncommon during long-haul flights and can be quite uncomfortable.

Filtered cabin air can still transmit airborne infections like cold, flu, and even tuberculosis

Dry cabin air causes dehydration that can further lead to chapped lips, dry skin, headaches, and nausea.

Your risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a potentially life-threatening embolism can increase due to lack of leg movement and poor blood circulation.

Tiredness due to jet-lag can result from a change in sleeping patterns while shifting time zones.


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