Airplane headache: Smart tips for pain-free travel

How to avoid airplane headache, neck, back and leg pains when you fly to your dream destinations

Traveling to distant shores is a dream come true for so many of us. However, the truth is, traveling also literally comes with its attendant aches and pains. It can trigger airplane headache or even migraine, especially if you are already prone to them.

And travel pains are not just limited to airplane headache, because you may end a flight with mild or medium discomfort in your neck, back, or even legs because of cramped conditions, changing time zones, long hours of immobility, and various other reasons.

It would be a terrible pity, especially if we only have a few days of vacation, if we had to spend a few or even one of those precious vacation days recovering from those aches and pains, right?

I’m happy to tell you, however, that there are things that you can do to prevent pain on a flight. Yes, you read that right. There are things you can do to avoid pain when you travel. So now I’m going to tell you all about how to be a smart traveler who is able to fly without pain.

“Thousands of miles and a splitting airplane headache…”

Does this sound familiar to you? Have you ever looked forward to going on a trip, only to arrive at your destination many miles away with a whopper of a headache? It really does threaten to take the enjoyment away from your whole trip…so much so that you almost want to say, “I’m never doing this again!”

You don’t want to get travel-phobia just because of a airplane headache.

But unfortunately, traveling has its own set of factors that can trigger airplane headache. And some of these factors are beyond your control, such as the changing air pressure in the airplane’s cabin, or the amount of turbulence your flight might run into that can trigger motion sickness and migraines.

The secret here is to get a step ahead of the factors you can control, so that when things happen that you can’t control, the fewer chances there are that you’ll get a airplane headache.

What do I mean by getting a step ahead? Read on, and you’ll get what I mean.

1. Relax and rest before you fly.

I know I’ve said this before, but I really do feel the need to say it again. Often, our headaches are helped along by stress, fatigue and lack of sleep. Now, if you combine these with the discomforts of flying, you are almost guaranteed to suffer from a headache on your flight.

I’ve also said that many people think that working up to the last minute before going on vacation, or even staying up late before you fly, will cause you to be so tired that you automatically fall asleep once you get to your seat. The opposite is actually true, because the excitement of traveling can get your body wired up, which does not contribute to sleep.

So the best thing to do is make sure you’re rested even before you board.


  • Get enough sleep before a flight
  • Pack and prepare everything well ahead of time. Waiting until the last minute will just add to your stress
  • Eat something light but healthy before boarding (or bring your own healthy snack)
  • Do something relaxing on the day before you fly – get a massage, do a yoga class, have some “me time”
The bottom line: The more stressed and harassed you are before you board a plane, the higher the chances you have of getting a headache. Board the plane already rested.

2. Avoid your airplane headache triggers.

The first step to doing this is to actually identify what triggers your headaches. With some migraine sufferers, certain foods can set them off, such as:

  • Chocolate
  • Cheese
  • Soy-based foods (tofu, soy milk, etc)
  • Nuts
  • Citrus fruits (oranges, mandarins, kumquats, lemons, etc.)
  • Caffeine (coffee, black teas, colas, etc)
  • Artificial sweeteners (aspartame, sorbitol, stevia)
  • Food that contains monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Dried fruits
  • Sausages and other cured meats (ham, corned beef, etc.)

If these or other foods cause your headaches, be sensible and stay away from them before and during your flight. For a good read on finding your migraine triggers, check out this article on WebMD.

However, with some people (like me!) caffeine or chocolate actually chase away headaches, so no need to treat this list like it’s written in stone. Be smart when it comes to your food choices when you fly, and you’ll thank yourself afterward.

The bottom line: You know your body the best. Before and during a flight, eat only what you know will make you feel at your best.

3. Avoid dehydration – make sure to drink a lot of water.

Even before asking the flight attendant for a cup of coffee or tea, drink some water. Dehydration can definitely cause headaches, so make sure you are getting the two liters or 8 cups a day that is optimal for good health. You may not need the extra cup of coffee to clear your mind if you’re already drinking a lot of water.

I know that some people actually avoid drinking a lot of water on flights because they don’t want to use the cramped, crowded, and sometimes dirty bathrooms on the plane. Frankly, it’s inconvenient, especially if you’re not seated by the aisle and you have to wake up the people beside you, and then crawl over them…it’s a hassle.

But having to go to the bathroom on a flight is a minor inconvenience compared to getting an airplane headache, let alone a full-blown migraine. So drink that water, put on your most polite face, smile, and ask your neighbors nicely to make way for you so you can use the bathroom. It’s worth it.

A word about drinking. On many flights, wines and beer are served with meals, and you can ask for refills. Sounds great, right?

Um, actually, no.

Alcoholic drinks (especially too much of them) can trigger headaches and add to dehydration, so you actually don’t want to drink too much on a flight. If you really want to, ask the flight attendant for one glass of an alcoholic beverage, and better to make it a small one to stay on the safe side.

The bottom line: Hydration prevents airplane headache – drink lots of water when you fly.

4. Bring your own well-stocked medicine kit.

I always make it a point to travel with my own medicine kit with OTC medicines, band-aids, muscle liniment, etc. Sometimes, when I feel the beginnings of a headache, I take Ibuprofen or Paracetamol right away, and this usually prevents it from getting worse.

If for you, motion sickness comes with headaches as well, there are motion sickness medicines or patches that you can try. The good news is that motion sickness can be mitigated, and you can find a good article about it on Tripsavvy here.

If you don’t like taking medicine, you can bring mints, ginger candy, or essential oils to help you feel better.

Bottom line: Travel with your own airplane headache remedy kit.

5. Try to get as much sleep on the flight as possible.

This means getting as comfortable as you can. Wear comfortable clothes, kick your shoes off, pull down the window shade, bring a sweater or scarf in case it gets cold, don’t forget your eye mask and earplugs, but also, you may want to fly with a good travel pillow. I have written extensively about the best travel pillows here, just in case you’re a frequent flyer and are looking for a good one. A good travel pillow won’t just prevent airplane headache, it will also keep your spine aligned and help you avoid neck pain as well.

When you sleep well, chances are you will remain a headache free. As soon as you feel sleepy on a flight, put your book down, or turn off the movie you’re watching. Sleep can be elusive, and the feelings of sleepiness can come and go. Take advantage of it when it’s there.

Bottom line: Good sleep is the enemy of headaches. Do everything you can to catch some zzzzzzzz’s on your flight.

Doing these five things will turn you into a smart traveler and prevent airplane headache when you fly.

But what about other kinds of pain? Unfortunately, our heads are not the only parts of our bodies that experience pain when we travel.

1. Back pain

Let’s start with the toll takes on your back, whether it’s your upper or lower back because honestly, both areas can be affected when you travel.

Begin with your luggage

Lifting heavy luggage can cause pain to your lower back, especially when you don’t lift it properly.

If your flight has a stopover (or two, or three!?!), the best is to check your baggage through all the way to your final destination. With some economy tickets, however, this is not possible, and you’re required to collect your luggage at every airport and check it in again. This can be very tiring, and so as much as possible, travel with bags with wheels on them so that you’re not carrying a lot of heavy things. One of the best days of my life was when I bought a roller bag as my carry on bag, because airports today are huge!

If you are carrying around a heavy bag, alternate the weight of the bags on your left and right shoulders so that one side does not get too strained.

When you do lift your bags, make sure to bend your knees, otherwise, you’ll put too much strain on your back. And, when you put your carry on luggage into overhead bins, one way to avoid straining your back is to do it in stages, i.e. lifting it up to the seat (stage 1) and then to your shoulder (stage 2) and then up to the bin (stage 3), as opposed to one fluid motion.

Bring your own back pillow

If you have a history of bad lower back pain, you might consider bringing a lumbar support pillow. These are not very big, and can easily be put into your carry on. Hey, anything is worth it if you can avoid pain, right?

If you don’t have a lumbar support pillow and your lower back is beginning to hurt, roll up your blanket or sweater and put it behind you, to support your lower back. This should help relieve some of the pressure.

Use a footrest

One of the things that can also cause back pain is when you’re too short for the airplane seat and your feet don’t rest on the ground fully. I’m only 160 cm tall, and sometimes my feet don’t rest on the floor of the plane properly.

This can cause strain on your back. If your airplane seat has no footrest, make your own. Put your carry on bag in front of you and rest your feet on it. You can do the same by building a footrest out of the pillow and blanket the flight attendant gives you, adding a sweater or other articles of clothing to the pile, until your feet can rest comfortably.

Move it!

Probably the best way to prevent back pain is through moving around. Do some light stretching, being careful not to hit your neighbors, though. Get up and go to the bathroom at least once every couple of hours if you’re awake, even if all you have to do is splash some water on your face. You’d be surprised at how moving around can prevent stiffness and soreness.

2. Neck Pain

Traveling can be a pain in the neck! Unfortunately, when you fall asleep and your neck and back are not aligned, this can result in strained muscles in your neck. You do not want this to turn into days of severe pain, and so if you’re someone prone to neck pain, these tips are for you.

  • A good travel pillow is essential for neck pain sufferers. I’ve said this many times and I’ll say it again. There are so many types of travel neck pillows nowadays, aside from the U-shaped ones that you can pick up in every airport. There are also J-shaped pillows, and other ones that wrap around your neck. There are ones that rest on your shoulder and cradle your neck, kept in place with a strap around your torso. As I’ve said, I’ve done the research for you here, and you can choose what’s best for you. You’re welcome 🙂 best travel pillow review
  • Do some gentle neck stretches. After a few hours of sitting in your seat, stretch your neck a little bit by bending your right ear down to your right shoulder, using your right hand to pull your head down for an extra stretch. Hold for half a minute, then repeat on the other side. Do the same with your neck parallel to the front of your body, dropping your neck to your chest, and then on the opposite side with your chin tilted to the ceiling, each side for another 30 seconds.

3. Leg Pain

Many travelers experience swelling in their ankles or feet, especially after sitting on the plane for a long time. They might also feel some soreness in their muscles. What travelers want to avoid is Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT), which occurs when a blood clot travels to the heart. While DVT is very rare, it is a serious medical condition, and so we must take care of our legs when we fly, especially if we fly regularly or frequently.

  • Walk when you can. During long layovers, it may feel tempting to just sit back and rest in the airport lounges or have another meal, or even catch a nap. Truthfully, it’s better for your legs and your overall health to get up and walk. Most airports have attractive duty-free shops where you can look around. No money? No problem. Just window shop. The more you move around, the better. Especially if you have another long trip ahead of you where you are looking at hours of just being stuck in your chair. Walk, or better yet, do a real power walk. Explore all the nooks and crannies of the airports you are visiting.
  • Walk on the plane. As I’ve said earlier, this is good for your head, your back, and especially your legs. Take your bathroom breaks in lavatories that are further, just for the extra movement it will necessitate.
  • Do leg exercises. Lift your knees off of the chair, flexing your feet. Hold them in the air and repeat several times. While you’re at your seat, flex your ankles back and forth, and rotate them as well. Make sure that there is enough space around you so that you can move your legs. And if you are feeling particularly cramped, ask to be transferred to an exit row if possible, as there is more legroom in those rows.
  • Try wearing compression socks or stockings. These are quite tight around your calves and ankles, and cause the blood in the veins in your lower legs to move upward, back to your heart. Ask your doctor if he or she wants to recommend them for you, and you can get them at any medical supply store or order a pair online.

Travel is meant to be enjoyed, not just endured. It’s meant to be fun and exciting, but unfortunately, the pain that comes with traveling makes it less fun. So be a smart traveler, take care of yourself using the tips above, and travel pain-free!