How to reduce pain on a long flight

Are you going on a long interstate or international flight these holidays?

The festive season should be a time to relax and enjoy yourself, so the last thing you want is for aches and pains to get in the way. Here are some easy tips to help you have a good flight and a wonderful holiday this year.

From minimising muscle and joint pain, to flying post-surgery or post-injury, we chat with Principal Physiotherapist at Northern Sports Physiotherapy, Bruce Anderson, to find out how you can travel with ease and get the most out of your holiday.

Before travel

Whether you’re envisioning leisurely strolls through old Europe or planning to explore the ruins of Machu Picchu, now is the time to prepare your muscles, joints and overall health.

“The healthier you are, the better you are with travelling,” says Anderson.

Seemingly simple holiday activities like carrying or lifting luggage, or walking for hours to catch the sights, can put your joints and muscles under more stress than usual, explains Anderson. To avoid this get active (think: cardio, strength and flexibility exercises) before you head abroad to prepare your body.

And it’s not just about regular exercise – you also need to reduce sedentary behaviour. “If you don’t move, the joints will stiffen up and lose range of movement. And if you already have an element of arthritis, for example, it will only exacerbate the condition,” says Anderson.

A simple stroll, cardio excercises and stretching daily can better prepare your body for long flights.

A half hour brisk walk every day, or an hour of social tennis, is great for your health, but it doesn’t cancel out sedentary behaviour like sitting for long periods in the car, on the couch, in front of the TV or even while reading a book. “This is the modern health problem,” says Anderson. In fact, the 2011-12 Australian Health Survey found nearly 70% of Aussie adults are either sedentary or have low levels of physical activity.

Interrupt up long periods of sitting with frequent breaks (grab a cup of tea or coffee, check the mail, walk the dog) and if you must sit, try these seated exercises at home.

During the flight

The main problem with a long-haul flight is the immobilisation, explains Anderson. “Our bodies require us to move. The joints, bones, ligaments, tendons – everything requires movement,” he says.

Next time you’re on a long flight, Anderson recommends trying a few of these basic movements:

  • Pump the ankles up and down (this gets your calves moving)
  • Turn your head side to side, and forward and back
  • Stretch your arms over your head
  • Twist left and right while seated
  • Move around the cabin
  • Use any small space away from your seat to do a back, hamstring and calf stretch.

When you’re seated for too long, there’s also a greater chance of Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT), which occurs when a blood clot forms in a large vein. Other risk factors of DVT include age (risk increases above 40), obesity, hormone replacement therapy, previous blood clot or family history, varicose veins, surgery or injury within 3 months of travel or limited mobility (e.g. leg cast).

“Post-surgery if you can wait until you are fully rehabilitated before you fly or travel that would be better,” says Anderson.

For those travelling with an arm or leg cast, he says, “You can ask for a cut or slit down the cast so your limbs expand during a flight.”

You can talk to your physiotherapist or plaster technician about modifying the cast beforehand. For leg fractures, you can use a boot. For upper limb fractures, Anderson suggests using a new brace system called the Exos Brace, which is removable and adjustable. “This is a good system for people heading overseas, especially within the week or two of experiencing an upper limb fracture,” he says.


If you’re feeling a bit stiff or sore after a flight or long car ride, try some gentle exercise once you arrive at your destination.

“I travel with basketball teams, and even the young men are stiff after those long flights. So, often players would receive gentle remedial or Swedish type massage after the flight,” says Anderson. “Or we would get them into the hotel pool and do a gentle workout session.”

How -to -travel -with -ease -swimming -water -workout -wyza -com -auCreate less stress on your joints and muscles by swimming or doing gently water workouts.

In fact, moving in water is one of the best things you can do after a flight, says Anderson. Your joints and muscles are inflamed and sore from being still, so harder exercises might aggravate symptoms, he explains. But if you try gentle exercises in water, there’s less stress, or weight bearing, on the joints and muscles.

Bruce's top tips after a long flight:

  • Get to the hotel pool and simply walk up and down, bending and moving your limbs
  • Try a light swim, for around 10-20 minutes
  • If your hotel doesn’t have a pool then go for a gentle half hour walk, regularly stopping to perform stretches.

At the end of the day it’s all about moving, he says. “Just like a car engine can seize up if you don’t move it for a while, so do the joints. By moving you produce the oil, called the synovial fluid, to keep your joints healthy.”

Which tip do you think would work best for you? Let us know in the comments below.