If you’ve ever gone on a long road trip, you probably know the simple pleasure that is stopping to stretch your legs. You feel restless, your body is a bit stiff - and maybe you’ve even developed a muscle cramp or pain from falling asleep in a weird position. Some fresh air and a nice walk around a parking lot feels great.
But an exit sign for a truck stop is not just a welcome break for you. Your psoas and iliacus muscles are about to be a whole lot happier, too.
These are the two muscles that have been quietly holding you up in your seat during that long drive. Or, if you’re the driver, the two muscles that have been allowing you to step on the gas pedal or brake at a red light. Together, they are called your iliopsoas and help make up the network of hip muscles - or “hip flexors” - that connect your thigh bones to your pelvis.
If you’re like most people, you probably aren’t thinking about your psoas and iliacus muscles throughout the day. That is, until you start to experience hip tightness, hip pain, sciatica, low back pain, or any other aches that don’t feel quite right.
So, what does that have to do with your road trip?
Well, prolonged sitting - like you do in your car - is one of the common culprits and causes of hip, back, and tailbone pain.
But, it’s not just relevant for those times when you know you have a long trip ahead of you. Most of us are clocking way more time in our cars than we realize. And we have developed tight hips as a result.
The relationship between driving and hip pain
Did you know that 95% of American households own at least one car?
This stat comes from the US Department of State. Though the introduction of ridesharing and a green push toward walking or riding bikes has decreased the number in recent years, it’s still accurate to say that most of us find ourselves sitting behind the wheel on a regular basis.
In fact, for a large majority of us, long commutes and rush hour traffic are just normal parts of a busy morning. According to another report from the National Household Travel Survey, we’re spending an average of one hour a day on the road.
Depending on where you live, that number may even feel low.
But if you add that up, it equals more than 10 full days each year that we are sitting in our cars.
And, though sitting in your car may feel like a passive activity, you are actually overworking your muscles. Ask anyone who needs to drive for a living, and they’ll probably be able to speak to the toll that it can take on your feet, hips, lower back, and neck.
Your hip flexors are at the core of that.
You see, when you sit down, your psoas and iliacus muscles contract to stabilize your pelvis and spine. Just like the hip pain you might experience from sitting, those same muscles can “freeze up” and form painful knots when you’re in the car. Unlike sitting in a normal chair, though, you’re engaging your psoas and iliacus muscles even more when you’re driving, especially so with your driving leg and even more so with a manual transmission.
When we’re sitting behind the wheel, we are using our hip flexors to hold us upright. We’re also engaging our psoas and iliacus muscles to move our foot on and off the pedals or release pressure of the pedal. In fact, that pedal foot has a constantly contracted hip flexor because that leg needs to be ready to move on a dime. Add in stressful driving conditions which is a common cause of tension in the pelvic region, and you have a triple whammy.
Left unchecked, this can become a disaster for your hips.
How to reduce hip pain while driving during daily commutes
Unlike sitting in your chair at work, or even on long road trips when you can take regular breaks to gently stretch your hip flexors, daily driving makes it much harder to give our muscles some relief from their contracted position.
So, what can you do to prevent hip pain while driving?
For starters, try to find a healthy sitting position. No more slouching with the windows down and one hand on the wheel - your hips will thank you for it!
Spend some time sitting in the driver’s seat of your car moving the seat around. Most have automatic controls that let you move the seat up or down, from front to back, change the angle of the seatback, and even control the tilt of your seat.
Ideally, you want to find a position where your knees are at just over a 90-degree angle, your feet can rest comfortably on the floor, you can reach the pedals without completely straightening your leg and the steering wheel is in front of your chest. A slight tilt forward, bringing your hips above your knees, will help take some of the stress off your hip flexors, too.
After you feel comfortable in the driver’s seat, you can prepare your iliopsoas muscles for a morning commute with a gentle stretch.
This doesn’t need to be a big production.
Doing hip circles or a quick lunge stretch for 15 seconds before you hop in the car may help your psoas and iliacus muscles relax a little.
And, after any drive, it’s always a good idea to take a short walk or stretch out your iliopsoas muscles again. Even if it’s simply parking at the back of the lot to add a bit of a walk to the store or taking one flight of stairs at your office.
Any of these will encourage tight hip flexors to release their hold after driving.
Keeping your hips pain-free when you aren’t driving
The reality is that it’s probably not possible for most people to give up their car - or stop every 30 minutes for a hip flexor stretch.
So, when it comes to hip pain from driving, you can probably do more to take care of these muscles that are oh so tight from driving.
That’s when a tool like the Hip Hook could make a huge impact on your day-to-day comfort. Especially if you’ve already started experiencing pain from driving. This simple tool helps you target the source of your hip pain and apply gentle, continuous pressure to your psoas and iliacus muscles. Incorporating a simple stretching exercise into your morning and nighttime routines is a great habit to start.
If you’re just beginning your journey toward understanding your hip pain, keep in mind that there probably is no one cause. While driving alone can overstress your psoas and iliacus muscles, there are probably other activities that you do each day to compound the problem. Sitting, overstretching, working out, driving - these are all very normal (and even healthy) activities that can add up to some chronic hip tightness and pain over time.
So, the next time you get ready to hop in your car, remember your hip flexors!
Take just a few seconds to let them stretch out before you get in the driver’s seat and check your seat position once you do. It just may help you prevent more serious hip, tailbone, and back pain while driving.
Frequently asked questions about hip pain while driving
Can driving cause hip pain?
Driving, along with excessive sitting elsewhere, can be a contributing factor to hip pain. Being in a seated position for many hours each day may lead the hip flexors and other muscles around the hips to tighten up, which can create compression, decrease range of motion, and cause pain in/around the hips.
Is driving bad for the hip flexors?
When driving, the hip flexors are placed into a shortened position (just like sitting at your desk or on the couch) where they can tighten up and become weaker. This can later lead to experiencing hip pain if the hip flexors are never able to truly relax and fully lengthen. You may consider adding in some exercises to stretch and release tension in the hip flexors to reduce the likelihood of developing hip pain while driving.
How do I stop my hips from hurting when I drive?
When sitting down and driving for longer periods of time, the muscles surrounding your hips are not being used and may have the tendency to tighten up and cause pain. If you experience hip pain while driving, it can be a good idea to stop and take a break every so often to stretch and move around. You may also find it helpful to release the tight muscles in your hip flexors and your glutes, as well as performing supporting strength and mobility exercises.