The Daily Grind: Driving Posture, Automotive Seating Design & Massage Therapy

How many minutes per day do you spend driving? Research shows that nearly 180 million of us utilize cars as our primary means of transportation—for short trips, long trips, and everything in between. As we have seen over the years, cars come in all shapes, styles, and levels of comfort. What we might be overlooking, however, is how critical the role of the seat may (or may not) play in relation to back pain and discomfort.

Recently, I had the honor of speaking at the 9th Annual Automotive Seating Innovators Summit in Detroit, Michigan. After reading through NCBTMB’s Daily Grind Blog Series related to Driving and Back Pain in October 2014, as well as our collaborative press release with General Motors following in November 2014, the creators of this event wished to learn more about how massage therapy relates to automotive seating design—a topic they felt would leave a lasting impression on the diverse experts responsible for the design and functionality of the seat across various industries.

During my visit to the Seating Innovators Summit, I was delighted to learn that automotive engineers and massage therapists alike agree to take the following precautions when driving:

  • Take breaks! Drive only one-hour at a time. If you are taking long trips, schedule a stop for every hour or so to stretch your legs and maintain blood flow.
  • Drink plenty of water. Sitting compresses water out from the discs; the more hydrated a disc remains, the healthier it will be—and the greater its ability to perform shock-absorption.
  • Optimal tire pressure matters. Think of tires like a second layer of shock-absorption. The make, model, and condition of the tires not only impact the driving experience, but more so the pelvis and lumbosacral junction—leading to that all-too-familiar stiffness after the drive.
  • Avoid potholes and other aggravating road conditions. Each time you hit a pothole or large bump unexpectedly, the jolting motions or vibrations may precipitate or aggravate back pain.
  • Keep in mind muscles fatigue. Here, I have to defer to the German engineers at the conference who conducted research on simulated humanoid models, and found that muscle fatigue could occur between 15 seconds and 2 minutes from a static posture. It happens much quicker than you think!

What is the Ideal Driving Posture?

Simply stated, one size certainly does not fit all. At the Seating Innovators Summit, I attended a very interesting presentation from the US Army that clearly defined all the dynamic issues in terms of height, weight, and stability in 3D models. Additionally, the presenter shared 3D rotating images of a man in the 5th percentile, as well as the 95th percentile, and demonstrated where the spine, pelvis, and legs fall on a given seat—even mapped areas of tension were noted! The presenter (as well as all of us in the audience) considered that, in the future, vehicles may need to come with two design options: one for the tall, and a second for the not-so-tall consumer. In the end, we all agree that the issues surrounding biomechanics are far more complex when we consider all of these factors, including height, weight, stability, and even driving style. We do not all adopt that perfect symmetrical posture as shown in mannequin road tests. Truthfully, the key to ideal posture rests in the curves of your spine—particularly your lumbar spine—being well supported in the seat.

How to Properly Support Your Spine

Properly supporting our spine takes active awareness. There will be times, however, where you find yourself in for a long drive. When you find yourself in that situation, take into consideration the following tips to ensure proper spine support:

  • Tie a pillow to the small of your back (attaching it to the seat itself).
  • Tying the pillow in place means it is less likely to move around and slip sideways with the vibration of the roads.
  • If you are shorter in stature, make sure it does rise up too high, or consider using a smaller pillow.
  • When seated in position, make sure to compress the pillow down to be right in the small of your back (in the lumbar hollow) only. Then, lean back over it and RELAX! If the spine is supported without pushing you forward, then you are in an optimal posture.
  • Finally, let your stomach muscles be at ease, yet offering gentle support to your posture. This can reduce over activation of back muscles, and provide you a little more tolerance to the static posture of a longer drive.

Automotive Seating Summit Lessons, Reflections & Implications for Massage Therapy

As a participant of primarily healthcare conferences, it was so refreshing to see how massage-related interests in the biomechanics of the spine and impact on the musculature are also utilized and heavily valued within the automotive and engineering realms. I learned many inspiring things regarding the future of automotive seating, such as:

  • Cars of the future could drive themselves, and that the current considerations are when to return control to the driver.
  • Seats of the future can move closer to the dashboard, allowing for more storage space.
  • Driver and passenger seats can swivel so that the two parties can view one another.

Another hot topic at the Summit that sparked up a lot of dialogue was the aspect of the seating materials—even the colorants of foam are an emerging market! One automotive company is working on a seat that moves within all planes of movement. With all of these great technological advances, we all agreed (massage therapist, engineers, and automotive executives alike) that in the spirit of seating design evolution, much more research is needed—and it will take all of us to work together to ensure a brighter, safer future.

Throughout the entire conference, there was much discussion on the automation of massage in
the seat in terms of pulsation, constant versus intermittent, and the technologies that mimic the Swedish movements of effleurage and petrissage. Global perceptions and expectations of massage were explained from deep acupressure style in Asian countries, to more varied pressure and technique in Europe and North America. I was delighted to discover that driving posture and massage are considered critical factors for the future of automotive seating. Moving forward, there will undoubtedly be many opportunities for Board Certified Massage Therapists (BCTMBs), doctors, medical experts, engineers, and automotive designers to collaborate and weigh in on future advancements.

Regarding the subject of massage therapy, all Seating Innovators Summit attendees were very receptive to hear about our profession’s movement toward Board Certification, the highest voluntary credential. In fact, representatives from the US Army confirmed that they would seek out a Board Certified Massage Therapist moving forward—and they were not the only ones! During conference breaks, and even over lunch, many came forward to confirm that their therapists were certified with NCBTMB. This reinforces the fact that massage therapy extends well beyond the scope of the medical and allied health professions. Our advanced credentials, knowledge, and experience MATTER! Opportunities such as the ones I identified during my visit to the Automotive Seating Innovators Summit represent just the tip of the iceberg for massage therapy to make an impact on other professions outside of healthcare… We are ready!

To download my official 9th Annual Automotive Seating Innovators Summit presentation, click here.

Tell us! What would the ideal seat be for you?

This blog was written by:

Board Chair
Dr. Leena S. Guptha


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