10 Tips for Traveling With Chronic Pain

Sarah lynn
Traveling with chronic pain -- map and passport

Next week I am leaving to go on vacation. Don’t get me wrong, I love visiting family but I hate traveling. Since living with chronic pain, I hate it even more. There are so many things I have to take into consideration when traveling that most people don’t, and it stresses me out. All I can think about is my pain levels and how I probably will not be able to manage them as effectively as I normally do, but I will still need to act like everything is great when I feel miserable. Chronic pain is unpredictable and no walk in the park, but it doesn’t have to ruin the time you will have with your family. Here are a few tips to help keep your pain bearable so you can have fun just like everyone else!

1. Stay hydrated.
Most people know it’s important to stay hydrated, but did you know it’s even more important if you live with chronic pain? If you become dehydrated you are more likely to get migraines and increase your pain levels, so fill a water bottle and drink it throughout the day. Migraines are debilitating and can take a while before they go away. It can be frustrating to have increased pain levels because of something you could have prevented.

2. Pack all your meds and backups.
When you have chronic pain, you generally rely on the medication your doctor prescribed to help control it — so make sure you don’t forget any medication! Chronic pain is unpredictable and although the medication your doctor prescribed may control the pain most of the time, sometimes it may fail you and in those instances, you want to be prepared! Make sure you not only bring your prescribed medication but also the back-ups so you’re prepared for a bad pain flare. You may not end up needing the backups, but if you do and you forgot them, you are going to be really mad at yourself.

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3. Verbalize your pain. When you have high pain levels, it can be so tempting to tell your friends and family that everything is OK when it isn’t! People with chronic pain don’t want to be judged and seen as weak because often our pain is invisible, and we get into this habit of telling people everything is all right. When you are on vacation and having a bad day, it’s so important to verbalize that pain, because if you don’t, no one will know you aren’t feeling well and they will just continue with their regular plans. Your friends and family aren’t mind readers — if you don’t make it known that you are struggling, they can’t adapt plans to make it easier and more enjoyable for you.

4. Get comfortable.
Airplane rides can be a person with chronic pain’s worst nightmare, especially if your destination is 20 hours away! They may beat a long road trip, but still aren’t fun if you constantly have tense muscles. Bring a neck pillow or a blanket to help you stay as comfortable as possible so you can keep your pain bearable. Having unbearable pain levels is frustrating and horrible anytime, but when you are on a plane and can’t do anything about it, that makes it 10 times worse!

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5. Get moving. When I am in a situation where I can’t move a whole lot, my pain increases, because low-intensity exercise is how I manage my pain. When I am on vacation, doing a Pilates workout is not an option, but getting up and moving every couple of minutes is. If exercise is how you manage your pain, do your best to be as active as possible while traveling. You may not be able to hit the gym when you’re on vacation, but do some activities like walking if you can, because some activity is better than none!

6. Hot baths.
If you have muscle pain or tense muscles all the time as I do, the thought of getting on a plane can be terrifying. Taking a bath the night before or the day of (depending on when your flight is) can help relax your muscles so you’ll have low pain and be comfortable during your flight.

7. Stretch.
Long flights can make anyone stiff, but for someone with chronic pain and tense muscles, it can become more of a problem. When your muscles are super stiff, that increases pain levels and will make it hard to enjoy yourself while on vacation. Create a five to 10-minute stretching routine you can do when you wake up or before you go to bed because it will make all the difference in the world in improving your mobility and helping you feel better.

8. Be mindful of your nutrition.
If you have chronic pain, you can probably agree that some foods worsen pain. For me, it’s alcohol and large amounts of dairy, so although I may have an occasional splurge, I try to stay away from these things most of the time to prevent a bad pain flare. Chronic pain doesn’t go on vacation just because you do. Make a food diary and document everything you eat, so you know which types of foods make you feel good and which ones cause a pain flare. You can enjoy your vacation with chronic pain, but if you are eating things that don’t agree with you, it will make it difficult to have fun because you will feel awful.

9. Get proper rest.
As someone with migraines, I have a love/hate relationship with sleep. Some weeks I will sleep a lot, while others I will get an average of four hours of sleep a night. I don’t generally sleep well if I forget to take my migraine medication. It’s important to still get enough sleep when traveling. Insomnia can increase your pain levels and prompt a flare that could last for weeks. Do your best to stick to a sleeping schedule, and don’t pull a week of all-nighters!

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10. Respect your body’s limits. Traveling with chronic pain can be difficult because you may not be able to manage your pain in the same ways you do at home. Know your limits and do your best to not push yourself too far past them. Pacing is important when you’re at home and on vacation, because chronic pain does not rest, and if you overdo it one day you’ll take all the fun out of your vacation. If you are not mindful of your pain levels, you will spend more time trying to trick people into thinking you are having fun and less time actually having it!

You know your body better than anyone, and if someone is suggesting doing something you know will increase your pain levels, don’t do it. Explain the situation to your friends and family; if they’re supportive, they’ll understand. You may be enjoying something at that moment, but if you are pushing your body too far, you could regret it later!

Read more stories like this on The Mighty:

50 Ways to Support a Loved One on a Chronic Pain Day

I’m Sorry, but I Don’t Owe Anyone an Apology for My Chronic Pain

How Pain Neuroscience Education (PNE) Is Changing Chronic Pain Treatment