What is “economy class syndrome?” I thought it referred to dark circles under the eyes, cramped legs and sore necks that are part of the joy of long haul flights. Recently I learned that “economy class syndrome” is a more serious condition, described as “deep-vein thrombosis or the formation of a blood clot, usually in the legs, a rare but fatal condition that occurs as a result of sitting for long periods of time, immobile, on international flights.”
How can you survive the cramped quarters on long flights and avoid “economy class syndrome?” The key is a combination of activity, water and sleep. Here are my travel-tested tips (and those of several flight attendants), to help you arrive feeling and looking good.
• Wear loose-fitting clothing, shoes and socks. Your best bet is comfortable slacks or long skirts so it is easy to cross your legs. Leave your panty or support hose in the suitcase: they can contribute to the formation of blood clots in your legs. Also avoid wearing tight socks or knee-high stockings. If they leave a mark on your leg, then they’re too tight to wear for long periods of immobility.
• To minimize swelling in your ankles and feet and to increase circulation, keep your feet elevated. Stash your carry on luggage under the seat in front of you and rest your feet on top of it, off the floor.
• Avoid drinks or snacks high in sodium such as Bloody or Virgin Marys, pretzels or peanuts. Read the labels! If you consume too much salt during a long trip, your feet may swell so much you won’t be able to put your shoes back on. I’ve seen people walk off the plane in socks, carrying their shoes!
• When you enter the plane pick up a pillow and blanket. Place the small airplane pillow in the curve of your lower back to alleviate tension in your lower back.
• Every time I use the flat airline pillows to support my head while sleeping, I develop a sore neck. I’ve discovered that an inflatable pillow keeps the head up and prevents pulled muscles. If you don’t already own an inflatable neck travel pillow, buy one. Most international airports have a good luggage and accessory store. They are inexpensive and readily available.
• Drink lots of water and avoid alcohol and caffeine. Eight ounces of water an hour is the recommended amount. That may sound like a lot, but if you drink 6-8 ounces an hour, you’ll be forced to get up and use the bathroom, thus stretching and moving around. Carry your own water bottle aboard and ask the flight attendant to fill when they serve meals or snacks. If you store it in the seat pocket in front of you, you’ll drink more often and have it available when the lights are out and the flight attendants are nowhere to be found.
• To help you sleep, use an eye shield. Break it in by sleeping with it once at home prior to your trip.
• Pack soft earplugs to mute airplane noises, the wailing of a baby or the rock music seeping from your punk neighbor’s C.D. The pellet-shaped foam earplugs don’t work as well as the soft silicone (or wax) variety that conform to the contours of your ear.
• The cabin temperature during the flight can range from stifling hot to an arctic chill so dress in layers.
• Carry cloth slippers or socks and wear them to keep your toes warm and let your feet breathe.
If you’re self conscious about doing these stretches in your seat and worry that passengers around you may stare or think you’re weird, then do them in the bathroom.
Shoulder Shrug: Lift the top of your shoulders toward your ears until you feel mild tension in your shoulders and your neck. Hold your shoulders raised to your ears for five seconds then relax and resume your normal posture. Do this 2-3 times every two hours.
Head roll: Begin with your head in a comfortable, aligned position. Then slowly tilt your head to the left side to stretch the muscles on the side of your neck. Hold this stretch for 10-20 seconds. You should feel a good, even stretch. Don’t over do it! Then tilt your head to the right side and stretch. Repeat this exercise 2-3 times on each side.
Ankle twist: Point your toes and hold the stretch for five seconds, then stretch your feet up and back toward your knees and hold this position for five seconds. Next rotate your foot to the left, hold five seconds, and to the right and hold for five seconds. Repeat several times.