One of the most common issues we hear about is how stiff and achy people feel after riding on airplanes.  The travel during the holiday season, when combined with the additional stress that is often present this time of year, seems to be particularly detrimental to how many people are feeling.  Whether it is your back feeling stiff, your hips tightening up, or your shoulders or neck getting achy, airplane travel does not seem to be helping. Between the seats that are often too narrow, the backs that are too upright, or the legroom that is non-existent, choosing to subject yourself to hours on end of being in the fully upright and locked position with your seatbelt securely fastened seems to leave more people wishing they could skip the travel and join in the festivities remotely (FaceTime, anyone?).

Here’s the thing – many of the signs and symptoms that you feel during and after you ride on an airplane are signals from your body that something is not operating as well as it could be.  Often times, what people want most is for the symptom to be addressed without considering why the symptom is there in the first place. But hey, if things are symptom-free, life is good, right?  Perhaps momentarily, but these efforts can quickly prove to be futile.

If you are interested in considering more than just what surface-level symptoms are present and trying to figure out why the symptoms are actually there to begin with, Muscle Activation Techniques® (MAT®) may be a fantastic option for you.  MAT® asks the question of, “Are certain areas feeling too tight/stiff/achy because there are muscles that are too weak and not able to do their job of moving and supporting your skeleton?”  When the muscles that are not working well are identified, they can be reactivated and strengthened, often times providing an opportunity for the tight and achy symptoms to dissipate.

Here are four things to consider if there are areas of your body feel tight and achy after airplane travel:

1) What feels tight and achy may actually be working well.

I know this can come as a shocker, but the symptomatic areas may actually be the areas that are working well.  Unfortunately, because other muscles are not working as well, the tight and achy ones are having to pick up the extra workload.  Imagine you and three friends are going to move a couch up three flights of stairs. If your three friends no-show on you and you end up having to move the couch by yourself, you are going to feel more achy and beat up after doing that than you would if you had some help.

Your body and your muscles work in a similar manner.  If there are muscles that are not working well, other muscles will pick up the slack and try to do the job for them.  This is an example of what is often called compensation. While this is great in the short term, over time the muscles that are working well can start to get more and more fatigued from having to take on the majority of the workload.  When this happens, there are three options for what to do: 1. Do nothing and hope everything takes care of itself; 2. Try to get the muscles that are already working well and doing too much to work better and do even more; 3. Get the muscles that aren’t working well back up to speed to relieve some of the workload from the muscles that are overstressed.

Often times, option numbers one and two are what most people try to do.  However, you can see why neither of these are actually optimal for long term health, function, and performance.  Option number three is what MAT® is trying to do – find the muscles that aren’t working well and get them working better so the muscles that are doing too much can have less demand placed on them.  Going back to the couch analogy, this would be like your friends showing up in the nick of time so you don’t have to move the couch up the flights of stairs all by yourself.

If you are feeling certain areas that are tighter than others, consider that those may be the areas of your body that are working well.  Connecting with a Muscle Activation Techniques® specialist in your area can help to identify which muscles are not working well and causing the other muscles to tighten up in response.

Related: 4 Early Warning Signs That You Need MAT®

2) You may not want to try to force your flexibility or joint motion.

In a similar counter-intuitive fashion to how the symptomatic areas may actually be the areas that are working well, if you feel like your joints are not moving as well after your flights or you aren’t as flexible when you get off the airplane, you may not want to try to force your joints to move than they are able to at that time.

One thing to consider before trying to alleviate the tightness directly is to ask, “Why is the tightness there in the first place?”  Often times, when your body’s motion is restricted relative to its norm, that can be a sign that your body is trying to protect you from something.  For example, if, from a standing position, you can normally bend down to reach your toes, but after being on the airplane you find that you end up a couple inches short, that can often be an indication that your body is intentionally protecting you.

“Protecting me from what?” you might be asking.  While there are many ways to answer this question, one possibility to strongly consider is it is protecting you from moving too far into a motion where you have less control over your joints and may injure yourself.

An example of this is what happens to your body when you step on a patch of ice.  Do you go all loosey goosey and limp? Or does your body tighten up when you step on the slick surface?  If you have ever accidentally stepped on ice, you know without a doubt it is the latter. So there you are, trying to stay standing on the ice, and your body is tightened up from head to toe.  You try walking to get off the ice, but all of your joints are limited in motion, so what is normally a strong, confident stride becomes a short shuffle step to safety.

Why did your body tighten up when you stepped on the ice?  Why did your joint motion all of a sudden dramatically decrease?  And, what happened when you were able to step off the ice and back onto the dry pavement?

The short answer is you tightened up to try to make sure you didn’t slip and fall.  It was a protective mechanism initiated by your central nervous system once it detected you were on a slippery or unstable surface.  You joint motion became more limited in order to make sure the center of mass of your body stayed overtop of your feet (you base of support), which is necessary in order for you to stay standing.  But, what happens every time, all of the tightness went away once you stepped off the ice.

You didn’t need to do a total-body relaxation or release.  All you had to do was step off the ice, and the tightness in your muscles went away and your joint motion returned to normal.

If your joint motion feels limited when you get off a plane, consider that is your body’s way of protecting you from trying to move too far and potentially injuring yourself.  Connecting with your local MAT® specialist can help you to reintroduce stability into your system, allowing your joint motion to return to normal.

3) The dull aches you feel may indicate your joints are taking on too much stress.

Another common complaint we hear about after people fly is they experience a dull ache in their back and hips.  Often times this can accompanied by muscle tightness in those areas, too. Building on the earlier points about muscle tightness, if you are experiencing dull aches after flying, that can be an indication that your muscles are not working well.

One of the main roles of your muscles is to help support your joints.  For the most part, they are the main things that are holding your joints and bones in place.  Which means that if some muscles are not working as well, not only do other muscles have to work extra, but the joints are not as well supported.  Over time, this can cause your joints to feel funky as the muscles that are supposed to be making sure they stay healthy aren’t doing their job.

Let’s go back to the couch analogy that was brought up earlier.  Pretend you and your three friends were going to going to each hold one corner of the couch.  You are carrying it along just fine, but then one of your friends decides to stop holding up his or her corner so that side drops down and is now dragging along the floor.  While this may be okay for a very short period of time, it would not be long before both the floor and the couch would start to show signs of wear in the areas where they are coming into contact.  The abnormal stress of being dragged across each other may even start to cause some damage.

When your muscles aren’t supporting your joints well, it is similar in nature to the couch be dragged across the floor.  While it may not be a huge concern in the short term, over the long term it can become a much greater issue.

If you are feeling dull aches in your back and hips after being in an airplane, consider that this is your body’s way of telling you that your muscles are not properly supporting your joints.  Getting your body checked out by an MAT® specialist can help to identify which muscles are not working well and get them back to doing their job of supporting and protecting your joints.

Related: Are you a candidate for MAT®? Answer these three questions to find out!

4) A change in your posture may indicate that your muscles are not working well.

Finally, sometimes it may feel as if your resting posture changes after flying.  While this can be frustrating, it is simply another indication that there have likely been changes in how well your muscles are functioning.

Not only do muscles help to support and move your bones, they also help position and keep your bones in place.  When it seems like your bones are in a less than ideal place (i.e. your posture is different), this is often contributed by a change in how well your muscles are functioning.  Imagine your skeleton like the frame of a painting and your muscles are like the wires holding up the painting. Let’s say there are three wires holding up the painting. If the middle wire gets cut (i.e. stops working properly), the painting will probably stay in the same place.  But what if the wire on the right or on the left stops working properly? The frame of the painting may tilt (i.e. the posture of the frame has changed).

Now, one option to get the frame level again would be to push the frame back into place, but as soon as we remove our hands, it would drop back down again.  Another option would be to get the wire that isn’t working well to work better. Now the stress of holding the painting would be evenly distributed across all of the wires and the frame of the painting could hang level.

We can often see very similar (and equally as dramatic) changes happen before and after MAT® sessions.  By finding what muscles are not working well and improving their function, all of your muscles can pull on your skeleton in an appropriate manner, helping your bones to be in the positions they need to be for you to function optimally.

If you feel like your posture has been thrown out of whack after flying on an airplane, connect with a certified MAT® specialist in your area to get your muscles assessed and working optimally.

If you would like to learn more about MAT® at Muscle Activation Schaumburg, you can download our free 20-page eBook here.

Ready to get started with the MAT® process?  Schedule a consultation call with us here!


Charlie Cates

Char­lie Cates, M.S. is a Muscle Activation Techniques® Master Specialist (MATm), an MATRx® Full Body Specialist, a mastery level Resistance Training Specialist® (RTSm), and a Cer­ti­fied Personal Trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Charlie attained a Bachelor of Arts degree from Williams College in 2010, where he played varsity basketball for four years. In 2016 he graduated from Northeastern Illinois University with a Master of Science degree in exercise science. A type-1 diabetic, he is the owner of Muscle Activation Schaumburg in Schaumburg, IL. He is an instructor for the Muscle Activation Techniques® program, introducing students of all different backgrounds to the MAT® process. Charlie specializes in managing and improving the function of his clients’ muscular system through the MAT® process and utilizing RTS® principles. He can be reached via e-mail at charlie@matschaumburg.com. Fol­low him on Instagram at @CharlieCates!

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