Living With Chronic Pain

How To Survive Holiday Travel When Living With Chronic Pain

The last burst of holiday travel is right around the corner- many of us will travel home to be with family or ring in the new year on vacation. Getting away can be a wonderful opportunity to recharge and enjoy new places. But for those of us with chronic pain, it can cause significant anxiety and concern over how we’ll survive not only the trip, but being away from our much needed resources at home.

I remember one memorable moment when my daughter asked me to celebrate her birthday at Disneyland. She thought it’d be fun to revisit as adults. After an early morning trek of over an hour, we were rerouted to a parking structure. Having recent difficulties walking any distances I was adamant we had to park in the wheelchair spots directly in front of the entrance. The park was going to be challenging enough but having to walk back to the car after a long day was more than I could deal with. We were informed that since our last visit, the parking site we previously used had been replaced with a shopping mall.

I started to melt down. I just couldn’t cope with the consequences. My daughter had no clue why. But the anticipation of the ultimate agony I’d face after hours of pushing the envelope overshadowed any fun to be had. Hearing my concerns, the attendants promised a wheelchair would be waiting for me anytime requested.

I knew from past experience, I have only so many steps in me. When reached, no amount of tenacity or determination could move beyond it. I wasn’t thrilled with the concept of being wheeled out, but it far surpassed the reality of having to walk. Lesson learned. Had we prepared, called ahead and known about the changes, we could have saved a lot of time and anguish.

That’s why I’ve found following these tips can be so helpful:

Talk to everyone involved

Be honest with those you’re traveling with and those you may be visiting. Help them to understand your needs. Don’t get caught off guard, or shamed into ignoring them. When traveling I require several blankets and pillows at my destination to help me sleep in the most favorable position. In a hotel this isn’t an issue, but not so in someone else’s home. A midnight run to a 24-hour Target saved the day when I stayed at my daughters new apartment. She now has enough pillows to last a lifetime!

Make airline travel as easy as possible

Have your boarding passes ready and ask the check in counter for early access to seats. There’s nothing worse then keeping anxious travelers at bay while taking forever to get to your seat and settle in. Use wheelchair assistance and canes when needed. Don’t let pride get in the way of safety. Attendants can help circumvent long walks and lines, and provide immeasurable assistance. These items can all make or break a long, uncomfortable flight:

  • Heating/ cooling packs (I buy disposable ones that are easy to carry)
  • Water for medications (I take a collapsible cup. That way I don’t have the weight, cost, or waste of a water bottle and can use anytime.)
  • Blankets
  • Neck rolls

Don’t forget your medications and accessories

A vacation is quickly ruined when you’re trying to get your physician on the phone to call in a prescription. And if you’re in another country, that’s not even an option. Muscle relaxants, topical creams, ice packs, heating pads, special pillows, and anti- inflammatories are difficult to replace far away for home. I always bring a cane just in case- a collapsible one easily goes into carry-on and purses when not needed. I also learned the hard way to bring extra cane tips. Put all items you cannot live without in your carry on. That way lost or misplaced luggage won’t be so devastating.

Investigate your accommodations

I can’t travel anywhere that won’t have a bathtub. A long, hot soak is imperative to the start and end of my day. Without it, I can’t survive. Understandably, as travel accommodations move to save water, places with bath tubs are getting harder and harder to find. An alternative could be a jacuzzi or hot tub in a heath club facility. I prefer to book a hotel room close to elevators and it must have easy access to an exercise room so I don’t miss my much needed stretches and walk on a treadmill or elliptical. Travel or not, exercising is an integral part of my well-being. When necessary, water bottles, collapsible weights and bands can take the place of dumbbells. I always call ahead to make sure they know I need a refrigerator in the room. If it’s for medical purposes they can’t charge or refuse.

Pack well

I find my pain is worse in cold weather. That’s why I always investigate the weather before leaving town. I have given away more sweat pants and shirts bought while traveling due to being unprepared. On one memorable cruise to Mexico, I was sure I’d be enjoying shorts, only to find December was winter for them too! Another time I forgot to bring an extra pair of contacts lenses. Spending the entire week with only one contact was a miserable way to see the sights. Do not bring new shoes on any trip, ever, without breaking them in for weeks to ensure comfort. Blisters are a horrible addition to an already painful existence. And always bring a spare. Tennis shoes are always a great option for any walking needs. Fashion may be important, but comfort and safety come first.

Keep moving

Long flights or road trips can be incredibly painful. Get up and move frequently. You don’t even have to leave your seat. Just standing, bending, twisting, stretching, walking in place can make a difference. There are even yoga moves for airline seats! They may look silly but they actually work and who knows, there may be enough takers to start a mile high class!

Don’t overdo it

Prioritize and make time for needed breaks. When I traveled with my little girl, we always went back to the hotel after a day of fun. This gave me a chance to soak in a hot bath, rest and recharge. Even a few minutes on an ice pack or heating pad went a long way. A couple of hours later I was ready for dinner and night activities! You don’t have to see everything in one day. Spontaneity may sound great but planning will keep the day going.

Check out requirements for traveling with health related items

If you are traveling with medications, liquids, braces, machines i.e. CPAP you have rights and responsibilities to be able to travel with them. I once had to wear a bone stimulator on vacation. It’s a big strange looking contraption that was searched every leg of the trip. Formal paperwork from the manufacturer and a physician note were invaluable. The TSA (transportation security administration) can help you with specifics on what is required. Being prepared can save a lot of time and prevent delays and problems at the airport.

Consider getting a TSA pre-check

The $85, 5-year membership does not guarantee you’ll be able to avoid lines entirely, but it does guarantee a quicker, seamless process at security check points. Members of the TSA pre-approved traveling program receive a variety of benefits when they fly with participating airlines and airports throughout the nation. Under the program, 94% of pre-approved TSA members wait less than five minutes when completing the airport screening process, as PreCheck lines tend to run more smoothly. Additionally, low-risk travelers can breeze through security without removing their shoes, belts and light jackets, or setting aside their laptops or compliant liquids. Instead, travelers can keep these belongings with them, helping them to move through the line at a quicker pace.

Ask for help

Don’t feel ashamed or uncomfortable asking for what you need- items like extra towels, pillows and blankets, or a refrigerator. Or help getting to subways, buses, taxes. Someone to aid in getting your suitcases off the conveyor belt, carry-on into and out of the overhead bin, a helping hand in and out of a car.  Check out the Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality for additional information and resources.  Speak up, the only one who suffers from your silence is you.

Expect the unexpected

Hope for the best, prepare for the worst- words to live by. I always purchase travelers insurance for any items that can’t be cancelled up to the time of travel. That way if anything happens, huge financial costs aren’t suffered along with the loss of a hard earned trip.

Prepare early

Set out all you’ll need in advance. That way you’ll immediately see any items in need of repair or replacing. Make sure you have all your travel papers, itineraries, contacts, receipts, money, identification, and credit/ ATM cards. I once left my passport in a very safe place- at home! Thankfully we had left early enough to get back in the car, go home and retrieve the indispensable item. Get to the airport in plenty of time to get whatever assistance you may need. The last thing you want to add to an already stressful situation is a time crunch.

If at all possible, give yourself time to decompress

We all know how much we savor our time off just to spend the last day overwhelmed and exhausted. Give yourself a day before and after to better prepare and transition from work and back again. There’s nothing more frustrating than a relaxing, amazing trip that’s diminished by the feeling you need a vacation from your vacation.

Take lots of pictures

We all have bad days. Ones we fear will never end, but always do. Looking at photos of the adventure helps celebrate what we were able to achieve and what was enjoyed. Sometimes it’s hard to stop focusing on what we can’t do. A photo is a great example, in living color, of what we did do, and reminds us there’s more to come.

Use distraction to your benefit

Sitting in a teeny, tiny seat with nothing to do for hours can be daunting for the best traveler. When in pain, it can be overwhelming. There’s nothing to help distract from the pain. When my daughter was young, we played cards, hand held video games, read, did puzzles, talked and shared to make the time pass quickly. Now a days you can even watch movies and DVD! Whatever helps, plan to bring it.

Travel is hard on everyone, not just those of us with pain. Planning ahead can make it easier to tolerate and help us to bring home moments we’ll cherish instead of ones we regret. I’d love to hear any special tips you have to survive and enjoy time away.

Everyone at Courtney Medical Group wish you safe travels and a healthy, happy remainder of the holiday season.


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