Airplane Cabin Pressure Impact Upon the Body: Health Tips

by travellotus on February 22, 2011

'Leaving Sydney' photo courtesy of Rob Millenaar

When flying, most people are conscious of the effects that jet lag and limited mobility has upon your physical well-being. However, much less is known about the negative impact of cabin pressure upon your body. Its impact is deeper than we realize and therefore, important to know how to implement preventative air travel health measures.

Insufficient compression and circulation in-flight is common. Depending on your health condition when flying, it can result in mild soreness to more serious health risks.

“We humans need air to live, so we do best around sea level. Airplanes are at their best up high, where the air is thin and smooth. And therein lies the rub: We invented a machine that thrives where we don’t.” [1]. In order for airlines to fly faster at a reduced fuel costs, they are slightly adjusting the cabin pressure, which intern puts strain upon our body. Other factors include our general state of health, length of travel and what we do before, during and after the flight. It’s hard to find this evidence, but it’s certainly there. Better air pressure would be gentler on the body, but it would cost us more on fuel to maintain.

Sitting long hours with limited movement alone can cause circulation difficulties, strain on the blood flow to the heart and lower back, and have the veins swell. Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT), serious blood clotting traveling from the leg or hip heart, is probably the most common health risk while traveling.  Then add to this the strain of flight decompression and you get a lot more strain than you can imagine in blood restriction and muscle tension. Even athletes can get “cankle,” a urban slang term for a condition where your lower leg between calf and the ankle seems to blend together without distinction.

Individuals at higher risk for circulation issues and/or DVT:

  • Pregnant women, individuals with obesity, and the elderly.
  • Individuals that have medical conditions that effect circulation: diabetics, varicose veins, high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis.
  • Heavy smokers and those who have a poor diet of high sodium and fat intake.
  • People with a medical history of blood clotting issues.
  • Marathon runners (after an event) higher risk for DVT

Helpful things to do to minimize stress before a flight:

  • Be well rested before your flight so your time on-board is not spent sleeping for extended periods of time; therefore, less immobile.
  • Get some exercise before you travel even a walk can really help.
  • Hydrate well and limit your salt, alcohol and caffeine intake.

Tips while in the air to reduce lower-leg swelling/clotting:

  • Sleep shorter periods of time and move around more.
  • Limit sedatives you might take in-flight to reduce inactivity while asleep.
  • Take a baby aspirin to thin the blood to help improve circulation and reduce likelihood of blood clots and heart attacks associated with DTV.
  • For the 20% of people that cannot take aspirin, a reported natural alternative is intaking garlic, turmeric, and willow bark.[2]
  • Wear loose clothes especially below the waist. Consider buying compression socks and/or a compression outfit called “jet skins.” The graduated pressure helps support the muscles which pumps blood back to the heart.
  • Avoid tight clothes especially things with belts and pantyhose that can block blood flow and further compound unnecessary pressure on your body.
  • Stretch your legs as often as you can. Standing up and moving around every 30 minutes or so can help with the blood circulation.
  • Try to move your legs and stretch your ankles once per hour.
  • Take a short walk to stimulate the blood pumping back to your heart.
  • Elevate your feet and legs when possible.
  • Draw circles with your toes to rotate your ankles if you are stuck in one position and cannot walk.

Suggestions for food and drink on-board:

  • Take on-board food that increases your circulation and strengthening arteries.  Good sources are: dark chocolate, blueberries, grapes, oranges, avocados, salmon, ginger, garlic, gingko biloba and pumpkin seeds. [3]
  • Additional natural alternative aids to increase blood circulation: vitamin E, neem, anthocyanin, pennywort, wintergreen oil, shou wu, cobalt, eucalyptus oil, and arginine.
  • Avoid saturated fats, salty foods, and creams.
  • Limit your alcohol and caffeine intake.
  • Drink enough fluid to keep your urine light in color.
  • Include an isotonic (electrolyte replacement) drink.

After a plane ride:

  • Walk or do some kind of light exercise to get your legs moving in the new the location.
  • Take a shower, as soon as possible, after the flight. Alternate hot to cold temperature to get your blood pumping.
  • Get a massage. Ask therapist to incorporate circulatory and/or lymphatic modality treatment work.  Also helplful are ion cleansing detox footspa treatments to re-balance your bodies’ bio-energy.
  • Especially for longer flights-continue to eat circulation enhancing foods and antioxidants food/supplements.
  • Most airlines now have information on managing DVT while in-flight.

Incorporating the above suggestions will not only help you to have a better air travel experience but increase your overall travel recovery time.

Enjoy the Journey!

By Melinda London, Travel Lotus

[1] To understand more about the dynamic of cabin pressure please visit:

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Stuart Balcomb May 12, 2011 at 3:25 pm

Great article. While I’ve practiced a lot of what you say, some info is new to me. Thanks!


maria peters March 14, 2013 at 9:33 am

Very nice article Melinda. Because effects of air travel on the body are indeed less well known. I work for a young company that specializes on healthy travel. We have developed an Instant Wellness Anti Jetlag travel system (based on a lot of research and testing) that provides relief for specific travel concerns such as swollen ankles, hot feet, dry nasal passages, susceptabilty to colds, etc. The system is formulated for the effects of immobility and cabin pressure on the human body in-flight. Considers a traveler’s increased exposure to germs and bacteria, increased radiation and how to strengthen your immune system in a humidity that is well below 20%. Terra Maxima Instant Wellness on the fly is very easy to use. It ‘s refillable and of course, carry-on approved. — Thanks for the above article.

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