Tam’s Updated 9 Tips on How to Travel with Chronic Pain.
Update 2020: I published this blog in December 2017, and it is one of the most popular blogs on my site. Many of us, especially as we get older, experience pain and uncertainty. I just had a left hip replacement 5 weeks ago! I’ve been traveling the last couple of years with an increasingly bad and super painful hip in addition to my back problems, but I have managed, and let me tell you how!
Knowing how to travel with chronic pain is very important for me. When I began solo traveling and performing citizen science, after my children left home, one of my family’s major concerns was how I would manage my back pain while traveling solo. What would I do without help? I have had two major back surgeries, and I am fused from L2-S2 with rods and 8 pedicle screws. In other words, my spine looks like a madman’s science project! Heavy lifting is a major issue for me in all aspects, and since I do volunteer scuba diving trips, I make arrangements before I go to be sure it is understood I need assistance with the weight of the tank. In addition to my chronic back pain, I have Psoriatic Arthritis which flares up when it is most inconvenient. Plus, as I said above, the last few years I have been traveling with terrible left hip pain (I just had a hip replacement, thank goodness). I have learned about taking care of myself when I travel with chronic pain, which is bascially all the time, and I’m happy to share these lessons, and tell you what works for me.
- Plan to be in pain. Yes. You will be in pain, so be prepared and have pain medications or any pain management items you normally use, at your fingertips. When I fly, I always carry pain relief such as Aleve Extra Strength, muscle relaxers, and muscle relief creams like Deep Blue or Icy Hot in my purse or backpack. I take Aleve for joint pain, I find it works best for long term relief.
- Always wear comfortable, loose fitting clothing. You don’t want to wear clothing that restricts your body in any way. Loose, comfy clothes and shoes are essential when I stretch or sleep on a plane. I stretch every time I get up, and try to get up at least once every two hours to stretch and walk a bit.
- Neck Pillow. I always have a pillow for my neck. Adding neck pain from uncomfortable seats or planes or trains compounds any type of pain one has. My motto is suffer as little as possible.
- Add 2 or 3 days to your itinerary. I have found this to be imperative, and it is one piece of advice I absolutely urge you to follow. I know this seems excessive, but there have been times when I have arrived at a location and had to rest for a day or two, and who wants to lose one second of vacation or a volunteer trip? I always build in the “days of rest” at the beginning of my trip, because chronic pain is unavoidable when you travel. Planes, luggage, airports, walking long distances, standing in lines…I need a couple of days of being on my back with muscle relaxers after long travel days. It is worth the extra cost, and if your body doesn’t need the rest, you’ve gained a couple of extra vacation days!
- Always wear compression socks on a long flight. The last thing you need to add to your pain is a blood clot! They not only help keep away blood clots, they make your legs feel alive! Circulation is of utmost importance.
- Always check your luggage. When available, use carts or porters or bellboys. I know it costs more, but it is worth it if you are in pain. Lugging bags around is just about the worst thing you can do if you are hurting. Asking may feel strange at first, but you’ll find that most people are happy to help, so I always accept offers of assistance, and I’m generous with tips.
- Sleep. Sleep is a cure for almost anything, I find. Take a muscle relaxer or pain pill and get some sleep! You’ll feel better when you wake up, I promise.
- Hydrate. Water, juice, lemonade, or tea will help to hydrate you and that is beneficial when in pain. Your muscles get tight when dehydrated, so be sure to drink plenty of fluids (alcohol and soda do not add to hydration, they actually dehydrate the body. I never drink alcohol on travel days, though when I travel I’m a Coca Cola fiend).
- Use Special Assistance and get a Wheelchair. I know how this sounds because I have fought doing this for a long time. What about my pride? Well, that “pride” is really called idiocy. A trip to Lake Tahoe in December 2019 resulted in hip pain that was really debilitating and it took me forever to get to the gate, and the pain was awful. I had planned a trip for January and February of 2020, a citizen science expedition with Ray of Hope Expeditions and the Queen of Mantas. The trip was to Raja Ampat Indonesia for diving on a liveaboard. I wasn’t worried about diving, diving is great for pain because the ocean completely supports your body. My concern was the 5 leg flights I had to do to get there. Dallas to Narita, Japan. Narita to Kuala Lumpur. Kuala Lumpur to Bali. Bali to Makassar. Makassar to Sorong. Yes, I was in business class, which helps tremendously (I save my miles for the long trips). But the airports! I knew from experience how much walking was involved in each of these airports. I set up wheelchair assistance at each airport, and it made the trip so much better. I do not know how I could have made that trip without assistance, it made all the difference. Do not be afraid to get help, the airlines are happy to do it, and every person who assisted me was happy, chatty, and just lovely. Do it! When you travel with chronic pain, why not make it as comfortable as possible?
There you have it, Tam’s Updated 9 Tips on How to Travel with Chronic Pain. I’m very experienced at this, and these are the tips that work best for me. So book your trip, pack up your gear and get going! You will be glad you did.
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