When one is involved in the excitement of travelling, you’re rarely thinking about your bones. After all, they’re always going to be along for the ride. But whenever you are moving your body by using some sort of transport other than your legs, you are in effect putting your skeletal structure into all sorts of vibrations, bumps and bounces that may certainly have a detrimental effect on the delicate linkage of your bones and ligaments.

Flying through the air with the greatest of ease

While travelling seated comfortably in a plane seems rather relaxing and hardly dangerous to your health, in fact all sorts of quiet effects can disturb the rhythm of your body, and therefore ultimately have an effect on the bones.

Energy, orientation, muscular vitality, dehydration, mental alertness can all be affected. The pressure, temperature and oxygen levels in the cabin fluctuate, and the humidity level is lower than it is at sea level. All of this can mess with normal body functions.

Not to mention the simple stress of travelling itself: standing for hours in queues, adjusting to time zones, meeting time deadlines, worrying about the possibility of losing your luggage, and mixing close up and personal with hundreds of people. And then you may face uncomfortable seats, dry air, and a dry throat, nose and skin.

Air pressure is lower at higher altitudes, which means your body takes in less oxygen. When less oxygen is getting to your lungs, you begin to feel drained and short of breath, which in turn may affect your bones. That’s probably why you will feel generally leaden and stiff when you arrive at your destination.

What you can do:

  • Keep hydrated. Don’t buy that gin or whiskey, go for a bottle of water.
  • Get up and walk around as often as you can. Learn some stand-up exercises and get those done every hour or so.
  • Perform stretches in your seat, like picking your feet off the ground and flexing and pointing your toes, to keep blood flowing. Get some sleep if you can.
  • Try to protect your ears. As the pressure in the cabin changes, the air pressure inside your inner ears will try to adjust with it – this equalisation is what helps you maintain your balance. Stress is placed around the middle ear tissue and eustachian tubes when the outside pressure changes quickly during take-off and landing, which is why your ears may have to adjust by popping. The suggested solution is to swallow or yawn during take-off and landing, which helps to open the eustachian tubes in order to control the pressure in the middle ear.

Car trips and the open road

The biggest issue with driving is lower back pain. This can be an issue whether you are the driver or a passenger. Hours behind the wheel in a sedentary seated position can lead to considerable dynamic stress on the lower back due to the vibrations and continual accelerating and braking. In addition, your feet are not being used to stabilise the spine, but to control the car. This puts continual stress on ligaments, muscles and discs.

What you can do:

  • Exercise and stretch well before getting into the car.
  • Purchase a memory foam back support. Invest in a ring cushion to protect the tail bone. Make sure your seat is in the most comfortable position for long haul travel.
  • Make slight changes in your position as you drive – this will alter the pressure on your back.
  • Once you stop driving don’t sit again. Rather stand around a while, do some walking and some gentle stretches.

Space invaders: going further than your bones had planned

Astronauts can experience bone loss in space. To understand why, you need to know a bit about how bones are formed and maintained in your body. On Earth, you experience the force of gravity. Astronauts float because the force of gravity is not very strong in space, and results in weightlessness. This small amount of gravity is called microgravity – and this is what damages astronauts’ bones.

  • Bones are constantly being broken down and rebuilt. This process is called remodelling.
  • Osteoblasts build bones using the same kinds of cells that build fat, muscle, and cartilage.
  • Osteoclasts break up bones. The key point to note is that osteoblasts and osteoclasts need to be in balance for your bones to stay healthy.

In space, due to weightlessness, astronauts’ bones are not actually in balance, and so they may suffer spaceflight osteopenia – a condition that sees astronauts losing bone mass in their legs, hips, and spines. Once the astronauts return to Earth, it can take three or four years for those bones to recover. Spending time in microgravity decreases bone-building and results in bone loss similar to osteoporosis.

Currently, scientists are researching the problem of bone loss in space. And who knows? Maybe along the way they will find a cure for osteoporosis, eventually helping sufferers here on earth to avoid this silent disease.

Love your bones. If you take a long journey, get shot out of a cannon, or go into orbit for any number of reasons…try to keep your balance.

NOFSA (National Osteoporosis Foundation South Africa)

NOFSA is the only non-profit, voluntary health organisation dedicated to promoting lifelong bone health. We focus on reducing the widespread prevalence of Osteoporosis while working to find a cure for the disease, supporting research and developing programmes of education and advocacy.

Find out more about our work at www.osteoporosis.org.za