Reclining the chair actually hurts my back. So I need my back to be fully flat, at least for a few hours to give it a break. Alternatively I can lie on my chest or on my sides.

I asked the airline. They said if there's enough empty seats, they could let me move over to a seat with empty 2 neighbor seats. But no guarantee of any kind.

Could it be possible to move to a business seat or is there any other space in the airplane that I can occupy? I wouldn't mind lying at the floor because pain is worse. Potentially bigger problem is if I damage my back, then I'm going to be in pain in the following weeks or months.

PS. I do exercises before, during and after flights. I pay a lot of attention to moving my body slowly and within control to make sure I don't do anything to increase damage or pain. Also using drugs I was given

  • 17
    is "not flying and saving your back" not an option?
    – njzk2
    Oct 13, 2021 at 20:49
  • 1
    Could a back brace or lumbar support belt or similar be of help (check with your doctor first though) ?
    – ghellquist
    Oct 13, 2021 at 23:09
  • 24
    There is basically 0 chance there's an empty business/first class seat, they will upgrade people to those seats and it's probably not going to be you if you have to ask this question. A row of empty seats also pretty much never happens and no, they won't let you lie on the ground for a bunch of fairly obvious reasons -- first and foremost if there is any unexpected turbulence you'll be thrown like a ragdoll but also you'll be a tripping hazard. The obvious solution is to not fly economy.
    – eps
    Oct 14, 2021 at 4:46
  • 5
    @eps I mostly agree with your comment, but I've found empty rows of economy seats on countless occasions. There's definitely no guarantee, but it's also a distinct possibility.
    – JBentley
    Oct 14, 2021 at 12:40
  • 2
    @eps - finding empty rows depends very much on the flight / destination. During the current restrictions on travel to the USA, transatlantic flights have been almost guaranteed to have empty rows, but that will change in Nov when the restrictions are relaxed
    – Dragonel
    Oct 14, 2021 at 14:58

8 Answers 8


There aren't many answers for this. I too have lower back pain and sciatica. It sucks.

  1. If you get a seat next to you, or ideally 4, you could stretch out. This is not usually common, although rumour has it planes on average are less full at present, depending on the route.
  2. Stretches. Depending on your back injury, speak with a physio beforehand about exercises you could do in the aisle or even in your seat every 30 min or so.
  3. Painkillers and Voltaren/deep heat. Deep heat saves me, seriously. Downside is it has quite the aroma.
  4. Upgrade. Pay for premium or business if available. The pain to your wallet may be worth it to your back, and might be cheaper than physiotherapy bills.
  5. Grin and bear it. Sometimes suffering is the last and only option. It's only 13 hours. It will end. Try and sleep as best as you can.

Unfortunately, lying in the aisle is not an option and is usually banned by most airlines for safety reasons.

  • 5
    Or buy three seats, under mentioning that you need them for yourself, medical reasons.
    – Willeke
    Oct 13, 2021 at 10:18
  • 8
    Note that on some aircraft, not all armrest can be raised (I've seen aircraft were 4 seats were actually 2 sets of 2, so you couldn't raise the armrests between the two sets), or not fully. Some seats (especially on emergency exit rows) have fixed armrests as well.
    – jcaron
    Oct 13, 2021 at 10:57
  • 3
    ThermaCare back warmers are great as well - no aroma. Lots of ibuprofen.
    – Jon Custer
    Oct 13, 2021 at 13:17
  • 6
    Refining @Willeke's comment: this is generally known as the "Extra Seat" option, and may be cheaper than an actual ticket (no luggage, no weight, ...). Unclear if 2 "Extra Seat" is possible, though. Oct 14, 2021 at 13:59
  • 4
    @blankip Thermotherapy patients reported significantly less pain compared to cryotherapy and control. But to be fair that's only a medical study with actual patients and not some random guy on the internet, I'd be wary of those too.
    – Voo
    Oct 14, 2021 at 20:27

One more point: research the plane and the seat carefully before you book. A site like www.seatguru.com is good for this. You can check layout, pitch, width and read reviews from other passengers.

The difference can be profound. For example United flies multiple versions of the Boeing 777. The older ones have 3-3-3 seating while the new "high density" ones have 3-4-3 seating in economy. It's the difference between a tolerable experience (even for 16 glorious hours from EWR to HKG) to absolute misery. Consider paying extra or routing differently to avoid a "bad" plane (if possible).

There is small chance that you plane will be swapped out or that seatguru gets it wrong, but this is quite rare.


There is nothing you can do but move around during the flight as much as the crew let's you. I have had severe back issues in different parts of my life. I was on an overseas flight where I threw up because it got so bad.

You can buy better seats or buy 2 or three seats next to you. This may make it less painful but its not going to save you.

You for sure cannot count on the airline to help you. You don't get free upgrades because of a bad back. Also the gate/ticket counters will always say "if there are open seats next to you we will see what we can do".

No - in 90%+ of the flights I have taken the gate crew makes no attempt to ever talk to the attendants about anything like this.

And to make matters worse empty areas of the airplane are basically treated like a Thunderdome Arena with very little rules.

  • If there are open seats some attendants will let you move right after boarding.
  • If there are open seats some attendants make passengers wait until after the seatbelt sign has been turned off during take-off.
  • I have been on many a flight where one attendant makes up one rule (please sir take your seat) and bam 5 people move right behind you under the orchestration of another attendant.

You can schmooze attendants or try to play the pity case but your results will be somewhat random. If you are slow because your back hurts, that does not make anything better. I have always been aggressive claiming space and just assume that once everyone is on the plane I move where I want (doesn't always work). If it doesn't work you go back and try again later.

I was on a flight where I had staked out an open row. Teenage girl saw this (and she had an open seat next to her). Well I got sent back to my seat. We are climbing in the air and bam... before that seatbelt sign goes off she takes the row - 5 seats... Ok so it's on. She made a strategic mistakes, she started lounging in the second seat. I took the middle. She says - I was about to lay down here. I say - me too. Thunderdome!

The pitfalls of staking out an open claim like this though is like others have said not all middle rows let all the arm rests up - ways around this though. And also if you do get a row like this you cannot really just walk around the plane stretching and stuff or someone is going to claim your ground. Basically you got to leave a bunch of your crap there (shoes and socks are key) and you need to stay a substantial amount of time before leaving for more than a quick bathroom break.

Paying a little more option: I hate to give an option that costs more because people saying upgrade to business or first class... well I go over to London often. Around ~1100. Business is ~4500-6000 and first class ~8000-12000. But the economy plus are an extra 100-150 each flight. So might make the trip ~1400. Anyways if you can get in the first row of a section of economy plus that is the best you can do for your back.

  • 8
    Please do not take your shoes and socks off on a plane! Why not just leave your underwear while you're at it Oct 13, 2021 at 19:10
  • 7
    @AzorAhai-him- shoes are not comparable to underwear, usually they are not even in contact with the body. If anything, getting rid of the shoes is analogous to taking off a coat.
    – Muschkopp
    Oct 14, 2021 at 8:44
  • 2
    @nick012000 not in the aisle, in the galley. And it won't be for long, maybe 10 minutes to relieve pressure on the back long enough that you can keep going.
    – jwenting
    Oct 14, 2021 at 9:04
  • 7
    @AzorAhai-him- Your feet only smell because you wear shoes all the time and don't wash your shoes. If you went barefoot, your feet wouldn't smell any worse than your hands (which are biologically very similar). And no one goes around saying that you have to put your hands away because they are stinky. Oct 14, 2021 at 15:23
  • 4
    @user3067860 it’s irrelevant why feet smell. The fact is, they do, and it’s unpleasant to expose others to that smell. Just like there are good reasons why farts smell: it doesn’t suddenly make it any more acceptable.
    – Tim
    Oct 14, 2021 at 19:23

Depending on what you're willing to spend (how important the trip is and how frequently you go on these kind of trips), you could consider upgrading to first class. Not all, but quite a handful of airlines provide you an actual bed, sometimes within your own room on the airplane.

  • 1
    If you spend a little more you could get a private plane.
    – blankip
    Oct 14, 2021 at 16:36
  • 3
    This is the right answer, though. OP has fallen into a mental trap of "bargain-hunting behavior". That is actually a willful trade between quality and cost, but OP is inculcated into it and has forgotten it is willful. Even though all of us make such willful transactions everyday: an annual smart phone instead of keeping a $100 flip phone every 5 years. A nice car instead of a Chevy Spark. Better food than Burger King etc. Oct 14, 2021 at 19:18
  • 1
    @JBentley That's a bit the point I was trying to touch, how necessary is this flight? If it's a transit flight from the place of the accident (that lead to the pain) back home, it might be worth it to consider as a one-time option, even if it would be out of budget usually. If it's a holiday vacation kind of trip, the expectations of flying economy need to be managed properly, as this is what you get.
    – kopaka
    Oct 15, 2021 at 14:01
  • 1
    @Harper-ReinstateMonica - not buying your take on this. He's suggesting first class, which can run a multiple of 10x. In your world a family of 4 is going to Disney World for a week and really lowballing that vacation it costs them 8k total. So you are saying that if they can go on slightly more enjoyable vacation... 80k? Another way to put it and I have a bad back... I can buy a nice car for my teenager for the difference between economy and first class on that length of a trip. I'll rough it and buy my kid a 9k car before shelling out $600 an hour for a better seat.
    – blankip
    Oct 15, 2021 at 19:57
  • 1
    @Harper-ReinstateMonica - your comments work for shorter flights. For transcontinental there is really no brokering your way into 1st class - especially COVID times. The first class is always full, economy no. If I take a 13 hour flight it will be on the low end 800, realistically 1200. Business is around 5-6k and first class 9-15k. There's no equivalents to what you are talking about. There was that one airline that went to iceland that was cheapo... but their "first class" was like economy plus.
    – blankip
    Oct 15, 2021 at 20:07

Break the flight into two 7 hours segments. Sleep/Lie down in between the segments at the airport. One advantage of this is that the flight is most likely cheaper then a non-stop one. Disadvantage is the trip will take forwever.

  • 1
    That does not help. You are just in a plane longer, sitting in airport longer. As a person with a bad back I would never do this.
    – blankip
    Oct 13, 2021 at 19:08
  • 2
    @blankip If you are in airports with napping facilities (like LHR, HKG and SIN) why would this not help?
    – Ole Tange
    Oct 13, 2021 at 20:22
  • 2
    @OleTange - not relevant. I have never been in an airports with an open bed to lay in. Counting the time you spend in the seats before take off at the airport, the time on the runway, the time after landing ... being a person with a bad back this is not good advice. Sure it could work... but 98% of the time it will make it worse.
    – blankip
    Oct 13, 2021 at 20:58
  • 2
    The Beijing airport has an in airport hotel. The rooms are tiny - just a bed and a TV. There is a communal bathroom. It is perfect for a long layover. I don't know why every major airports does not have amenities like this.
    – emory
    Oct 14, 2021 at 0:14
  • 2
    Only places to nap in most airports is on the floor, and those floors are usually tiles, they're HARD. As a back patient myself I know this all too well. I've had flights where I've asked the flight attendants if it was ok for me to lay down on the floor for a while, usually they're fine with me doing that in the galley as long as there's no meal service going on. It helps. Other flights just sitting on the floor instead of in an airliner seat helps.
    – jwenting
    Oct 14, 2021 at 8:21

Right now airlines are packing flights as full as possible in an effort to recoup losses from the past 18 months. If you're looking for extra room in economy or free upgrades you better have status(which from your asking means you most likely don't). To be completely honest, if you need to lay down for a long flight then you should pony up for the First/Business Class or Premium Economy upgrade. If you can't do that then I'd highly advise postponing your trip.

If the trip is for business then assuming you have seen a doctor regarding your back issues tell your manager that you have medical issues and that you will be upgrading your seat to first class in order to alleviate them.

If none of the above are possible, make an appointment to go see your doctor and ask them how you can alleviate the back pain. Physical therapy and chiropractic appointments did wonders for my sciatica to the point to where it took 2 weeks for most issues to subside and 8 weeks for all symptoms to go away.

Edited: Changed the business use case to specify managerial approval.

  • 5
    Check your company policy and talk to your Manager before buying a First Class ticket you expect to be reimbursed for! There may be special processes or they may cancel your trip, don't end up out of pocket!!
    – deep64blue
    Oct 13, 2021 at 21:46
  • 9
    I have to strongly agree with Alan Dev. You should not buy a First Class or even Business Class seat without approval from your line manager. What you can do is tell your line manager that for medical reasons you can only fly First Class or not at all. But spending what can sometimes turn out to be 10x of someone else's money without telling anyone is not a good idea. Oct 13, 2021 at 23:19
  • @AlanDev Even if it is out of pocket, it's still a business expense so you'd probably be able to deduct it from your taxes.
    – nick012000
    Oct 14, 2021 at 9:00
  • A friend found acupuncture to be highly effective, even though he didn't believe in it. Someone persuaded him he had nothing to lose by trying it, and it worked. A similar argument might apply to hypnotherapy (in this case I don't know anybody who has tried it).
    – nigel222
    Oct 14, 2021 at 9:10
  • @AlanDev Your probably right, I've edited the answer to reflect this. I've always been a ask for forgiveness type of person than to ask for permission.
    – seroki
    Oct 14, 2021 at 13:48

I have arthritis pretty much throughout my spine and just had pain block injections last week, so sitting in economy while flying to SE Asia to visit my wife's family can be excruciating. I usually don't recline my seat either, as that seems to make it worse, but sometimes you have little choice if the people in front and back of you are inclined. What I've learned to do is to keep a supply of Panadeine only for flying. Panadeine isn't available in the US where I live so I have to bring it back from our trips, or if Canada's open it's available there. There's just enough codeine in it to keep the pain knocked back, but not so much that I get nauseous from taking it (like I would with prescription Tylenol III or similar). You need to stay on top of your pain, I know that I need to take one 500mg Panadeine every 4 hours or so to remain pain free enough to be somewhat comfortable, maybe even sleep (rare).

Edit: we almost always upgrade to economy+ for the extra legroom. My wife doesn't need it, but at 6'-2" it makes a difference for me even if it costs us an extra $600 or so for our two seats to be upgraded.

Obviously taking a narcotic is less than desirable, but it's what I've learned to do. I also bring Voltaren or a generic for diclofenac gel (if you're in the US, both Walmart & Costco sell a generic now that's quite reasonable). Yes, it's a bit smelly, but it's not an unpleasant smell, and it doesn't last long as its absorbed into your skin. It also wasn't available in the US until very recently, so I'd have to bring it back from trips like the Panadeine.

Also, Panadeine's not exactly legal to have in the US, although I've never had a customs agent confiscate it on either end of the trip. I also never fly into Singapore or Malaysia with prescription narcotics of any kind except Tramadol (which is not on either of their illegal drugs schedules, something you do NOT want to mess with over there). Do your own research and don't trust mine, I haven't flown to SE Asia (or anywhere else) for several years so things might have changed.

We also spend time on checking out our plane's seating arrangement to locate the best seats where there's some extra room for a bit of stretching and the fewest people around us, usually toward the tail of the plane. My wife is small, so she can curl up in a seat, but I'm football player sized, so I'm generally bigger than the seats can comfortably accommodate. As long as we're seated together, this isn't a big deal because I can just use some of her unused space so my shoulders aren't out in the aisle (another reason to check the seating arrangements to maximize the aisle width so you're not getting bumped by the cart every time they go by). Some flights are really good about not hitting you or at least letting you know they're coming (China Air, Delta), others seems to do it deliberately to punish you for being in the way (United).


Are you able to take the same trip by train?

There's a lot more ability to move up and down the aisle, and there may exist sleeper facilities on the route.

Even if only part of the trip can be via train, a connecting flight will then be shorter and perhaps more tolerable, or can be replaced by a rental car where you're moving about in the seat a bit more.

  • 2
    A 13 hour flight by train? I do not know about intercontinental trains.
    – Willeke
    Oct 15, 2021 at 4:23
  • 1
    @Willeke nowhere in the question says it was an intercontinental flight, over water. And the follow-on comment about doing part of the trip by train remains valid.
    – Criggie
    Oct 15, 2021 at 9:39
  • 1
    @Willeke I mean, it doesn't apply to the exact question, but someone might google how to fly with back pain for their five hour LA-DC flight and find this answer useful. Oct 15, 2021 at 15:40
  • 1
    @AzorAhai-him-, as I said in my comment, I am pro train but replacing a many hours flight with a train will get you to a several days train journey or one in high speed trains where you will have to change trains a few times and your seat will be no better than those in planes. I was willing to travel Amsterdam to Napels by train (cancelled due to covid) but that was 24+ hours by train instead of less than 3 hours in a plane (including the wait between boarding and the actual start.) And €150 for the train journey instead of €65 or less for a flight (and budget is part of the question.)
    – Willeke
    Oct 15, 2021 at 16:56
  • 1
    I would think in this case, the question is finding a passenger-carrying ship. Oct 16, 2021 at 18:19

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