Fix Your “Pilot Back Pain!”

Yup, most pilots have some distress here…just mention “back pain” with any high-time pilot and you will probably get an earful about fused and removed discs, or stories of continuing misery and medication. “Lots of hours” means lots of sitting – the “new smoking” – and this often results in back pain issues. (Even athletes with regular exercise routines often miss the real source of “pilot back pain.”)

A great article in “Agricultural Aviation” inspired this blog. A focus on fitness, and especially walking and stretching, can often bring relief and avoid the continuous discomfort many pilots accept as an “occupational hazard.” A targeted focus on the true cause will usually be more effective. For newer pilots, please consider your seated posture carefully and exercise to avoid creating what can be a very painful condition:

Keep your buttocks against the back of your seat with a cushion or support that fits the curve of the lumbar spine.

You should be able to easily slide your fingers under the thigh at the front of your seat and a fist between the back of your calf and the front of your seat.

These are great suggestions to *avoid* a bad back, but it doesn’t help a pilot already suffering from serious pain. I personally got into such a bad state with my lower back that I could not sit for more than an hour without excruciating pain shooting down my legs (sciatica symptoms). That certainly ruins your fun and effectiveness as a pilot. I was well into the MRIs and X-rays and well-meaning doctors insisted back surgery was my only viable solution.

I am no doctor, so this is just friendly advice, but for me walking and targeted stretching fixed my problems with a daily commitment. With your doctor’s blessing, you might try some targeted exercises and stretches before resorting to “the knife?”

The piriformis muscle is a very common, and seldom suspected, cause of back pain from sitting. Even if you exercise regularly, most routines do not adequately focus on hip flexibility. “Piriformis syndrome” presents exactly like a herniated or ruptured disc with similar sciatica symptoms. When this muscle spasms, it puts pressure directly on the sciatic nerve that results in tingling, numbness and eventually excruciating pain; “pilot back!”

Massaging your piriformis muscle may help ease your piriformis syndrome symptoms. Regular self-massage and stretches can help loosen the muscle and reduce pressure on your sciatic nerve.

Just search for “piriformis syndrome” and you will find lots of advice on how to better care for this unhappy muscle. Relief from suffering comes pretty quickly, but also requires a commitment to regular exercise and hip stretching. But your whole core musculature will benefit. Fly safely out there (and often)!

Enjoy the new courses available to members on the new safe website. And please download and use the (free) SAFE Toolkit App. This contains all the references a working CFI needs plus provides continuously new safety content.

SAFE developed an insurance program just for CFIs! When you are an independent CFI, you are a business (and have legal exposure). This program is the most reasonable but also comprehensive insurance plan you can have (and every agent is a pilot!)

Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI (12X), FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently jet charter captain.

4 thoughts on “Fix Your “Pilot Back Pain!””

  1. Oregon Aero has a LOT of experience in this area. As a solo long-distance pilot I found that they know how to build a seat you can sit on for 18 hours straight with no back or leg pain. In fact, no discomfort at all. I don’t pretend to know the magic but they know what to do.

    1. Yes (thanks!), a great seat is just the thing (the Pilatus PC-12 has those amazing seats). But we spend countless dual hours in old, flattened C-150 or PA-28 (16K hours dua given) and “pilot back” is almost inevitable! There is also a “plastic butt” available online just for pilots that reorients the spine and helps with “pilot back” But stretches seem to be the best inoculation.

  2. Back pain is a complex topic, and SAFE should exercise caution in offering medical advice about its diagnosis and management. It could put the organization at risk for liability.

    Victor Vogel, MD, FACP, CFI

    1. Agreed, back pain is complex (and very common). I thought I was (painfully🤣) clear; I am no doctor and this is not medical advice. Trying some targeted movement (with your doctor’s approval) may yield results without surgery; as pilots, we sit way too much!

Tell us what *you* think!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: