A Guide to Traveling With Chronic Pain

Traveling with chronic pain can be exhausting and complex, but manageable!

A Guide to Traveling With Chronic Pain

Chronic pain can be something that's hard to speak about, especially when there's no visible evidence of it. 

When there is a visual marker of pain, it sometimes can be easier for the bearer because it is inherently more "believable." Consequently, it can be easier to access help and gain trust. However, many people don't have these visual markers and still suffer chronic pain. In these cases, their pain often isn't believed or trusted. Trust me, not believing the bearer is something that can be extremely damaging.

One of the ways I've been able to challenge my health issues has been to travel. Travel makes you confront your mental and physical health in ways you've never considered.

Therefore, here is my guide on traveling with chronic pain!

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Tip! - Book early if possible, and don't be afraid to ask a company representative for help. 

Nine times out of ten, people will be more than happy to help you with whatever you need. In foreign countries, this can be a bit tricky because of language barriers. Nonetheless, if you book or arrive early and really make a sincere effort, there is usually something that can be done.

Taking a train from Slovenia to Austria!

For example - I can't sit in a middle seat on flights lasting longer than two hours. Most of the time I book a window seat to help accommodate my chronic back pain, but recently I've also had to ask for aisle seats to work with various side effects of my new autoimmune medication. Sometimes if I've booked one thing and realize when I get there that I need the other, I'm able to change the seats pretty easily if I explain my situation. 

Tip! - Some cheaper airlines will switch your seat last minute without your knowledge, even when you've already checked in. Be sure to read every guideline about such issues and ask a representative when you arrive to confirm your seat choice. 

If you find your chronic pain being questioned by representatives of the company you're traveling with, stand up for yourself! Just because someone doesn't see your pain, doesn't mean it doesn't exist. 

Some quick tips:

  • Have a folder for all your medical information: all your doctors and prescription information, any printed out sheets that detail your condition and everything it causes, and anything else relevant. This will prevent hours of stress if you ever have to go to the hospital or explain your conditions/medications to someone. Additionally, if you're ever dealing with a border control situation and you think the medications might be a problem, push them to the bottom of your bag around something that a guard might feel uncomfortable poking around with (tampons, underwear, dirty clothes... etc). 
  • Wear comfortable, closed-toed shoes.
  • Bring compression socks (to reduce swelling).
  • Have decent-quality headphones and bring two pairs if possible.
  • Carry on all your meds, don't check them because you can't afford to lose them (the same goes for contacts and glasses).
  • Bring heating patches - good for arthritis, strains, menstrual cramps, and general aches and pains. 
  • Neck pillows can sometimes seem like a scam, but getting a good one can really help you in uncomfortable travel situations and might be the only thing that helps you fall asleep. 
  • Pack light if possible, if not, make sure the bags you have give you the most help possible. For instance, with suitcases, get one that you can push as well as pull. For backpacks, look for ones that have straps that allow for weight distribution.
  • Above all else, stay hydrated! Bring an empty, medium-sized, refillable water bottle with you so you have the constant reminder to drink water. 

Medications

Prescriptions

Many health insurance carriers will allow you to have a 3 month supply of medication if you apply ahead of time. However, more expensive medications or "serious" medications can be harder to get.

If there is an issue, call your insurance carrier first, then your pharmacy. In many cases there is something that can be worked out. However, if not, you might have to resign yourself to paying out of pocket. If that's the case, see if there's any sort of deal you can work out with either the insurance carrier or the pharmacy.

Tip! - For prescription migraine medication, always take a month more supply than you think you'll need. Travel and stress go hand in hand, and because of that, sadly so do migraines.

20 minutes post migraine, I got to walk around the Colosseum!

Other

Because other countries have different brands of medication for colds, headaches, etc - it is always best to have a baggie of brands from your home-country that you can't get anywhere else.

My recommendation? - Get DayQuil, NyQuil, Midol (for the ladies), cough drops, and your favorite type of pain reliever (Advil, Tylenol, etc). 

Accommodations

For many of us chronic sufferers, good sleep is vital to managing pain. That's why sleeping on any sort of transportation vessel is so hard, and why where we choose to sleep afterwards is so important.

As a general rule of thumb, no wayfarer traveling with chronic pain should sleep on the ground if they can help it. This goes for any type of chronic pain, but especially anything involving pain in muscles, bones, joints, etc. Even an uncomfortable mattress or a couch that isn't quite long enough can be the reason why you have worsening pain throughout your day.

Up early in Venice after a bad nights sleep

What to look for/try: 

  • If in a hostel with bunk beds, always chose the lower bunk. 
  • Take a shower or bath (whatever is available) before you go to sleep to get your muscles loose.
  • When sitting, try to have your knees below your waist as this can relieve pressure from your back (you can try sitting on firm pillows to achieve this). 
  • Stretch before you fall asleep and after you wake up.
  • Make sure you have enough pillows to help prop up anything aching or to help prevent against pain in the morning (good pillows can really help migraines). 

Need help sleeping? Try one of these tricks:

  • Use a heating pad.
  • Sleep with a pillow between your thighs.
  • Try breathing exercises.
  • Download some type of white noise to help you fall asleep (I have an 8 hour rainstorm downloaded).
  • Stay on a regular sleep schedule if possible.
  • Use pain meds and/or sleep aids when recommended by a doctor.
  • Buy a good travel pillow if the pillows you're provided with are inadequate. 

General Health Maintenance While Traveling With Chronic Pain

Exercise

Staying active is vital to traveling with chronic pain, exercise = energy.

Hiking in Oahu

Being active doesn't mean you have to run miles or lift weights, it's just keeping your body moving and healthy in whatever way your pain allows you. Maintaining consistency within your body is important while traveling, so whatever way you stay active at home - try to do wherever you travel.

If you don't have access to a fitness center or other tools that you usually prefer for your exercise, try being creative! Hiking, swimming, and even walking around new cities can be good stand-ins.

Eating Habits

Diet can be another huge factor in how you manage your chronic pain.

Again, the answer is to try and stay as consistent as possible. Maintaining that normalcy in your body can stop unwanted reactions. But then again, trying new types of food is one of the best parts of traveling!

Brunch in Bruges

There is no right answer to what you should/shouldn't try, because every body will react differently. You know yourself better than anyone so trust your judgement. For example, if you're sensitive to gluten, stick to things you know couldn't have any and/or research ahead of time. If there's still something containing gluten you're dying to try, then plan for the pain ahead and allow yourself recovery time afterwards.

Tip! - Research is key when traveling. Lots of menus online will have English translations and it's easy to look up the ingredients of any dish nowadays. 

Mental Health

Truly this is a heavy topic especially when dealing with chronic pain.

Dealing with chronic pain can have serious implications on your mental health and these effects shouldn't be taken lightly. When I was younger I didn't really pay attention or try to talk about my mental health, but still dealt with extreme pain on a daily basis. Everything revolved around my pain and it changed how I reacted to people and how people reacted to me.

Travel was one of the ways I was able to really face my mental health head on. Traveling with chronic pain and having new situations makes you confront your physical and mental pain in completely different ways, resulting in a better understanding of yourself as a whole.

Self care = self love

This new understanding of myself led to liking myself more, appreciating my talents and positive attributes instead of just looking at myself negatively.

Tips on traveling with mental health worries:

  • Allow for periods of rest. Traveling can be exciting and the nature of wanting to keep pushing on to see absolutely everything can be very overwhelming and aggravate your mental health. Plan for periods of rest in your day, EVERY day. 
  • Be nice to yourself, you're a pretty cool person. 
  • Have something that grounds yourself and can be easily accessible (I have a stuffed animal who travels with me and stays in my hostel/hotel during the day). 
  • If you have prescription meds, take them exactly as you were doing before you started traveling. Again, maintain consistency! 
  • Self care = self love! 

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