neck pain in-flight

Neck Exercises while Flying

Travel stress can wear anyone down, especially when faced with a long-haul flight and heavy bags. Such journeys often lead to back ache and neck pain which prompts many people to make use of in-flight neck exercises and other relaxation techniques to ensure they arrive at their destination calm, collected, and in good physical shape. Stress about flying itself can cause tension in the muscles of the back and neck, along with adverse changes in circulation, water retention, and the possibility of catching a cold or other bug from the recirculation of air on such flights.

Neck Exercises onboard – Safety First

While going for a run, or doing a full gym workout is not a possibility (on most flights anyway!), it is perfectly possible to carry out a simple routine of neck exercises in-flight. Just remember to tell the person in the seat next to you first, lest you spill their coffee, and make sure to consult a physical therapist if you have existing neck conditions such as spinal stenosis, degenerative disc disease, or other issue that excludes flexion, extension, or other neck exercises in-flight. Fighter pilots have a number of pre-flight exercises that help them stave off neck stiffness and pain and, whilst mach-3 is not a likely consideration for you on the Red-Eye, such exercises can have the same benefits for regular passengers.


neck pain in-flight

Simple In-Flight Neck Exercises

The easiest neck exercise to do on a long-haul flight is the neck roll, with little danger of disturbing the person next to you and no need to get up out of your seat. This neck stretch is great for relieving stiffness and tension in the neck and shoulders and is done by rolling your head from left to right in a circle, bringing your chin down to your chest as you go. Follow this with a slight stretch of your neck from side to side, without bringing your shoulder to meet your ear and some of the stiffness and tension in those neck muscles will begin to dissipate.


Shoulder Rolls and Resistance Exercises

Shoulder rolls are also great for doing in-flight with little disturbance caused to those in neighbouring seats. Keep your head and neck still while you hunch your shoulders forwards and then roll them around backwards with ten repetitions or so in each direction. Place your hands behind your head and push against the movement as you try to tilt your head backwards, then finish by placing your hands on your forehead and applying slight resistance as you try to push your head down to your chest, making sure not to actually move your head during these exercises.

Back Twists In-Flight

Sitting in the same position for hours at a time can easily put strain on the same small number of muscles in the back and neck. Remind your body to relax and to use other muscles every half hour or so in-flight and you are much less likely to step off the plane feeling fatigued and stiff. Back twists may not be suitable for all passengers but they can relieve tension in the spinal column for many. Start in an upright position and reach the right arm across the body to clutch the arm of the seat to the left. Turn the head and body as one to the right and hold for twenty seconds or so before returning to the center and then doing the exercise another two times. Switch arms and turn to the left to stretch out the spine in the opposite direction.

Chin Tucks and Shrugs

Shrugging might seem part and parcel of travelling anyway these days, with all the delays and confusion that flying often entails. Make that exasperated shrug an effective in-flight neck exercise by squeezing the shoulders together and up, then back down over a number of repetitions. Flexing the shoulder muscles in this fashion often helps force the neck muscles toneck pain exercises in-flight relax and gives stressed shoulders a bit of a workout to relieve tension. Chin tucks can do the same by working muscles that may not be tensed during a stressful flight and thus forcing those that are tight to relax even if just temporarily. To do these simply bring the head back until you give yourself a double-chin and hold the pose for a second or two. Do it again but this time moving your head to the left shoulder and then the right shoulder in turn.


Sensible Travel Tips for Neck Pain

Those who suffer from neck pain and back discomfort often find that slight changes to the way they pack their bags or carry luggage makes a huge difference to their symptoms after a journey. Instead of consolidating all luggage into one large suitcase try to distribute the weight evenly between two bags and carry one in each hand to prevent an overload on one side of the body and resulting muscle fatigue. If using a backpack take care to fasten the chest straps where available and have it fit snugly to your back in order to hold the weight in the torso and core rather than have it pulling on the shoulders when hurrying to catch your flight. Suitcases with wheels often necessitate bending over to reach the handles which can mean back ache for taller people who have to stoop more. If this is the case then fit an extra handle to the case, switch cases with your partner or friend, or look into ergonomic travel luggage to get a better fit.


Full Body Stretch – In-Flight

It might garner you some strange looks on a flight but turn off the overhead light and carry out a full body stretch to really force yourself to relax. Start at the top and work down by tensing every muscle you can individually. Scrunch up your face to start, hold the pose for a few seconds and then feel the muscles relax, move down to the neck muscles, the shoulders, the chest, torso, buttocks, thighs, and right down to the toes to let the stress slip away. Pilots who experience and expect more stress on their flight are more likely to suffer neck pain and stiffness so defeat this common neck pain cause by listening to some relaxing music, carrying out deep-breathing exercises, staying hydrated, and giving yourself plenty of time to get to and from the airport. In order to increase the impact of these stretches take care to carry on breathing easily and regularly as you do all of these neck exercises in-flight.



Kemppainen P, Hamalainen O, Kononen M., Different effects of physical exercise on cold pain sensitivity in fighter pilots with and without the history of acute in-flight neck pain attacks. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1998 Apr;30(4):577-82.