Traveling with Chronic Pain

Chronic pain may interfere with daily activities, but for millions of people who live with conditions like migraines, low back pain or arthritis, life can’t be ignored. This means driving to destinations, participating in family get-togethers, and going on vacation. Travel by car or plane is a staple of modern life, so if you plan to travel and have chronic pain, then you should carefully plan your trip.

In 2014, Americans most often took trips lasting three to four days (27 percent), followed closely by trips lasting five to six days (25 percent) and those of seven to eight days (22 percent). So in most cases, U.S. travelers not only have to plan out a couple of long plane, train or automobile trips, but probably several smaller forays to other local destinations.

This can put enormous strain on your body, so it is only prudent to prepare for long stays in relatively cramped conditions. These preparations can take many forms including pre-trip exercises, travel aids and personalized travel arrangements.

Planning Your Trip

Once you know the destination and dates of travel, be sure to do some research on what local conditions are likely to be.  Check out the weather and pack accordingly. You may also want to learn about any health risks in the locale.

As you make travel arrangements, you should carefully consider what kind of transportation you want to use. If you have the option, you should strongly consider traveling by ship. Cruise ships offer a cabin with a bed and other comforts. Otherwise, you may want to use a train which is roomier than cars and planes, and less hard on your body.

If your only option is air travel, then book early to get an aisle seat. An aisle seat should provide a bit more room and easier access to walk around the cabin.  Avoid seating in the back where there is more likelihood of feeling turbulence. If you have flight miles or the funds, consider a business or first-class seat.

Conditioning Your Body for Travel

Depending on your chronic pain condition, it may be prudent to prepare physically and mentally for your trip. Here are some suggestions:

  • Consult your doctor—if you are going on an extended trip or if your pain symptoms are severe, you should visit your doctor prior to the trip. You can discuss the state of your body and how best to accommodate your health condition. If your travel is to a destination outside of the U.S., you should get up to date on all of your vaccinations and ask about any potential health risks.
  • Strengthen your physique—if you are in the care of a physical therapist, then ask what exercises might best prepare you for a long trip. In general, it is a good idea to workout your body prior to a trip, so that you get a good night’s rest and that your body feels relaxed.
  • Minimize stress—traveling can be a very stressful process, so it is a good idea to remove as much stress as possible before leaving home. Check off as many responsibilities as possible and engage in a mind-body exercise like yoga or Tai Chi to be as mentally relaxed as you can be.

Packing for Your Trip

Although packing isn’t the most important aspect of your trip, you should still approach it with careful planning. Don’t underestimate the strain of packing, as it can be physically as well as mentally strenuous; many chronic pain sufferers may want to break up this chore into multiple, smaller tasks with rest breaks in between.

As you pack, consider the following:

  • Bring your medications—bringing the right drugs with you—and in sufficient supply—should be your first priority. You should also bring some prescriptions along in case you run out, or your trip could become an excruciating experience. If you take opioids or other controlled medications, keep them in their pharmacy packaging and store them in your carry-on luggage. 
  • Travel aids—if you need items like support pillows, heat packs or noise-cancelling headphones, be sure to put them in your carry-on bags for easy access. Wear comfortable clothing and shoes for long waits in line and sleeping on the flight.

Enjoy Yourself

It may seem obvious but make your trip as enjoyable as possible. Not only will the emotions produce a natural pain relief, but a good time can distract you from the pain. Plan out how you will entertain yourself on the plane ride or car trip including music, books on tape, or movies to distract yourself from any potential pain symptoms.

Once you get settled in, you may want to take some time to rest and collect yourself before you rush out to the first tourist attraction. In general, you should not speed along from one activity to the next, but plan out pit stops to rebuild your energy. If you need to make adjustments to your medication levels, clothing or hunger state, allow yourself to do so. Be sure to discuss your condition with family or others on your trip, so that no one is surprised if your pain symptoms return.

You may want to see and do a host of things on your vacation but make reasonable goals. After all, you’ll enjoy your trip much more if you are well-rested and pain-free. If possible, set your priorities so that you do the most important activities earlier, and you can miss a few that are less dear to you if your pain flares up.

Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care

M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees.  The information contained in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor does reading or accessing this information create a patient-provider relationship.  Comments that you post will be shared with all visitors to this page. The comment feature is not governed by HIPAA and you should not post any of your private health information.