Are Your Muscles Roadtrip Ready? How to Avoid Hip Pain During a Long Drive
You may love road trips for several reasons, but hip pain probably isn’t one of them. Although you may be mindful and take plenty of breaks to “stretch” your legs while you drive, hip pain while driving is an increasingly common problem, whether it is during your morning commute or cross-country trip.
One thing for sure is that any pain, no matter the cause, should never be ignored. Without proper attention or treatment, hip pain while driving can lead to more issues down the road. Literally.
Just like when you sit all day at the office, if your body is in one position for too long while driving, then two small muscles are taking the brunt of the work.
Those muscles are your hip flexors.
More specifically, they are two connecting muscles: the iliacus and psoas, which together are often referred to as the iliopsoas. And, if you have hip pain while driving or hip pain after a long drive, that pain could be the result of these tight hip flexor muscles.
This article will help you better understand the function of your hip flexor muscles, and how these muscles could be causing you pain while driving. Plus, I’ll give you some tips and tricks to avoid hip pain during and after a long drive.
What causes hip pain while driving?
Although you may feel like sitting is a “resting” position for your body, your iliopsoas muscles are actually engaged the entire time. You see, the iliacus keeps your pelvis stationary and aligned with your thigh bone while your psoas holds your spine straight. They stabilize your entire body and allow you to maintain this position. Essentially, if your iliopsoas stopped working while you were sitting, you wouldn’t be able to sit upright at all.
The problem is, these muscles aren't meant to be in this seated, shortened position for a long time. Eventually, your iliopsoas muscle gets cramped and starts to develop painful muscle knots. You may feel these in your hips or glutes, but you may also feel them in your lower back on either side of your spine, or even into your thighs. And these parts of your muscle stay contracted even after the rest of your muscle has relaxed.
This muscle shortening and hip pain can happen with any regular sitting positions, but tends to be exacerbated by the limited mobility when driving. Additionally, when driving, your right iliacus and psoas are experiencing even more strain because you’re constantly using your right leg to accelerate and brake. If you have a manual transmission, then both the right and left iliopsoas muscles are being engaged very frequently.
On a long road trip, you may benefit from using cruise control more often, but there will still be some strain on your hip flexor muscles because of your restricted seating position.
On top of all this, when you are on a long drive, it can be difficult to relax because you’re paying attention to the road and other drivers. After all, you need to be alert and able to react if you have to stop or accelerate. This extra tension can fatigue your hip flexors even more, making that tightness and pain even worse.
Unfortunately, hip pain while driving might not be the last of your worries either. Did you know that your tight hip flexors could actually create a whole bunch of other issues for your body?
How hip pain can lead to sciatica, knee, and back pain
A little bit of hip pain while driving might not seem like a big deal at the time. But, if you have noticeable pain and ignore it, it could spread and lead to something worse.
When your hip flexors, especially the iliacus muscles, are allowed to remain tight, it creates a domino effect with neighboring muscles, nerves, and joints.
Even if your pain after a long drive isn’t severe, or it’s simply presenting as some tightness, it could be contributing to other issues that impact your day-to-day quality of life. Sciatica, hip pain while sleeping, knee pain and back pain are all often connected, and it often starts at your hips.
Anytime your iliopsoas is knotted, tight, or contracted, it can pull your pelvic bone forward, throwing your pelvis out of alignment. When you have an anterior-rotated pelvis, it means that one of your pelvic bones, either the right or left, is rotated forward in relation to the opposite side. A rotated pelvis can create problems all the way down to your foot.
When tight hip flexor muscles get to the point of causing alignment issues, more strain is put on surrounding areas. For instance, when one pelvic bone is rotated forward, it puts strain on the tailbone connection, creating pain and tensions where they meet. This can cause sacroiliac pain.
You may feel pain in your hip joint first: when hip alignment is off, there is extra tension being put on the hip socket, and it won’t rotate or move correctly. The now ill-fitting hip socket can cause an internal rotation with your thigh bone, impacting how your leg functions from the hip down. The thigh bone's internal rotation puts an unnecessary and unnatural strain on your knee because the kneecap doesn’t track normally anymore.
As your lower leg rotates inward, this can also cause your foot to pronate.
As you can see, a little bit of hip pain while driving may seem harmless, but if your iliopsoas is tight enough to impact hip alignment, it more than likely is impacting your knee and foot alignment as well.
Since your psoas is also an integral part of your hip flexor muscle group, it has a similar chain reaction when it is chronically tight. But, in the case of the psoas, this chain reaction moves up your body instead of down.
The psoas muscle connects from the front of your thigh bone to your spine and lower back. While tight psoas muscles can also move down the thigh to impact your lower extremities when tight, they are also likely to pull your spine into an arch, compressing and bending the side of your body that is tight.
As your psoas tightens, it will pull and pull on your spine and irritate the various structures in your lower back. Because the psoas and iliacus work together, the pulling of your iliopsoas can create pelvic rotation and tension that moves from your hips to your feet or your hips up to your shoulders and even your neck.
So, what may have started as just some slight hip pain while driving can cause you to eventually experience sciatica pain while driving, leg pain while driving or many other irritating issues.
Because it all starts with your hips, let’s take a look at some easy ways you may be able to avoid - and relieve - your hip pain while driving.
3 simple ways that could help you avoid hip pain while driving
If you have a long drive or road trip planned, it’s time to take some preventative measures to avoid hip pain while driving. There are only so many things you can do during your actual drive, so the time you spend on your hip health before and after you get in the car is important.
Here are three simple practices you can put in place before your next road trip or long commute:
1. Keep a healthy sitting position while driving
As I mentioned before, sitting for prolonged periods will always result in the shortening of the hip flexors. Still, there are some sitting positions that are worse for your hips than others. So let’s learn a thing or two about good posture for preventing hip pain while sitting in your car for periods of time.
First, do your best to sit as upright as you can. This may be hard in your car because of how the seats are constructed, but if you can, engage your lumbar support in your seat and put the seat back up. This is so when you are resting your back on the seat, your body is supported in the upright position.
Overall, you want to avoid slouching, even if it feels more comfortable in the moment. Try to find a seating position that allows your knees to be slightly past 90 degrees, and your feet to rest on the floor.
You should be able to reach the pedals without having to straighten your leg completely. A slight tilt forward can bring your hips above your knees, taking some strain off your iliopsoas muscles and reducing hip pain before and after you sit in your car.
So, before your trip, take some time to move your seat around and find the perfect position to support your hip flexor health.
2. Take breaks to stretch and move your hips
If you can, take breaks throughout your drive to walk around and stretch. Make use of the rest stops by adding a few extra minutes to do a deep lunge stretch or back stretch, a few hip flexor stretches, and to take a walk.
If you plan a long lunch break and it is a nice day, you can also choose to have an outdoor picnic, pack a yoga mat, and do a few more stretches before driving again.
Whenever you stop driving that day, you may be tempted to rush into your destination and collapse because you’re tired.
But it’s important to take a moment to stretch and move your hips before sitting down or lying on the bed. This will help you alter the shortening of your hip muscles and encourage other types of movement or engagement.
3. Relax and release hip flexor muscles after driving
Since your hip flexor muscles are engaged the entire time you are driving, one of the best things you can do post-road trip is take 10-15 minutes to relax your muscles.
The hip flexor muscles are difficult to relax because they are engaged when sitting and laying down.
One good way to relax the iliopsoas muscles is to find an ottoman or couch, lay on the floor with your butt up against the base of the furniture, and rest your lower legs and feet on top of it.
In this position, your legs should be at a 90-degree angle. With your calves and feet resting on the ottoman, you should have a chance to relax. This position will take strain and tension off of your iliopsoas muscles.
After you’ve given your hip flexors time to recoup in the resting position, then we hope that you packed a few helpful muscle release tools on your trip.
Especially if you have chronic hip pain, I always encourage people to make room in their luggage for muscle release and massage tools. After all, your body is going through atypical stress and will need a little extra love.
The Hip Hook is a simple, compact hip flexor release tool that targets the source of your hip pain: muscle tension. By applying direct, prolonged pressure to the iliopsoas muscles, you can release trigger points and knots after a long drive.
The Hip Flexor Release Ball allows you to more gently release the psoas muscle and also address muscles like the piriformis on the back of your hip structure.
Remember: It is important to have balanced muscle release of both your iliacus and psoas muscles. If you release one and not the other, then they will play tug of war and keep pulling each other out of alignment.
One of the best ways to avoid hip pain while driving is to get to the root cause of your pain. Chances are, if you have hip pain while driving, you likely have hip pain during other life activities as well.
My book, Tight Hip Twisted Core, is an in-depth look at how your iliopsoas muscles impact your daily life. Not only do I provide the background knowledge you need to understand what’s happening anatomically, but I give you the tools you need to prevent hip pain while driving from becoming a recurring issue in your life.
Hip pain FAQs
Can driving cause hip bursitis?
When any muscle is chronically tight, it’s endlessly pulling on both of its endpoints. Both the iliacus and psoas attach to the front of the hip near the groin area. These points where they attach to the bone can develop into tendonitis or bursitis from that muscle being constantly tight. So the tight muscles may be the cause, and driving puts those muscles in a contracted position for an extended time.
How do I stop my hips from hurting when I drive?
While posture and positioning matter, to prevent hip pain when driving you’ll want to learn to release those muscles causing pain during the moments you’re not behind the wheel. Your hip flexors are likely tight and pulling on your hip joints while you’re driving. Understanding how these muscles are affecting your hips, low back, and knees and applying direct pressure to release them will result in pain-free road trips.