5 creative ways to manage my pain while traveling
Retirement should be about doing what you want to do, right? For many of us, that means travel! Unfortunately, as we age, our bodies sometimes won’t cooperate with the plans our brains have made. What to do? Don’t be too quick to cancel your plans! Depending on your particular condition, accommodations can be made to help you feel comfortable as you explore the world.
After having a three-level lower back meltdown in January, I naively thought I would be “ready to go” for a five-day trip to visit my son in August. I was still bitter that I had missed the trip to Spain to visit our daughter, left behind by my husband to recuperate in the cold Midwest. Now that I had been cleared to travel by my surgeon, I wasn’t going to miss it!
For those of you new to the spinal fusion game, this is no joke. It’s different for everyone, but in my case, sitting down is the hardest thing. Standing, walking and lying are much easier on my back. Although nothing is forbidden, my back is better on a two-hour flight than on a six-hour road trip.
With a surgery like this, there are a lot of things to consider. As I wanted to minimize my sitting time, my priority was to get a direct flight of the shortest possible duration without connecting. As a frugal girl, I never considered flying first class – I mean, what am I, chic? After my surgery, my 6-foot-7 husband introduced me to Comfort Plus by Delta, which gave both of us some extra breathing room. I recommend this update if it’s doable for you! Even if you can’t get an upgrade, try to take the aisle seat, as this will allow you to get up and walk around more than if you were sitting next to the window.
I didn’t need any special accommodations for my flight, but there is plenty of assistance available at the airport. Need a wheelchair? Very easy! Choose the elevator, escalator or treadmill if you walk too much. Some airports are huge!
Besides these travel tips, there are plenty of strategies to use once you arrive at your final destination.
1. Consult professionals before traveling
As I am six months post-op, I have had several recent appointments with my surgeon. When I mentioned the upcoming trip, he suggested taking a short course of steroids to help me sit up more and change my sleeping situation. I appreciated his insight, and the steroids were indeed effective! What suggestions might your doctor have?
Besides your doctor, another expert to consult is a physical therapist. Your physical therapist knows tips and tricks to keep you comfortable in potentially uncomfortable situations, like long plane or car rides. In addition to heat and ice wraps and pain relievers, your physical therapist may suggest bringing additional equipment like exercise bands or fascia balls to relieve pain and discomfort. He or she might also suggest what not to to do – which could be just as useful. It’s a good idea to check with a qualified expert!
2. Consider two beds instead of one
Whether on vacation or at home, sleep should be a top priority. When I don’t sleep well, I pay for it (and everyone around me too)! I knew I would squirm to try to make myself comfortable and I didn’t want to disturb my husband. Although we couldn’t get two beds and ended up with a queen, I will continue to request two beds in the future. I don’t need the added pressure of trying to be calm while still getting a good night’s sleep.
3. Make the pharmacy your first stop
With travel restrictions, you may not be able to bring some essential items. Luckily, there’s a Walgreens, CVS, or Target on every corner. Do yourself a favor and stop at the pharmacy on the way to the hotel. You don’t want to be without your essentials when it’s time to go to bed! In addition to your foam and deodorant, you can take a heat or ice pack, ice hot patch, pain reliever cream, heating pad, and anything else that helps you sleep comfortably and give you energy for your trip.
4. All pillows
The name of the game is comfort, so start your journey with a pillow. Grab your favorite travel pillow (invaluable for neck pain) before you get on the plane or in the car. A lumbar support pillow can also be a game changer for travel. It’s important to be ready for anything – who knows how long your plane might be on the tarmac? No one can predict traffic, and you’ll be grateful for your lower back support as you slowly move along the tollway.
Don’t forget the pillows for the bedroom! When we stayed at the Westin in Washington, DC they were only too happy to provide us with four extra pillows for our bed. After a simple phone call, the pillows arrived within minutes. Let me tell you, these pillows made ALL the difference! My physical therapist showed me how to make myself a kind of “nest” for maximum comfort, and these pillows were a godsend.
5. Move, but listen to your body
“Take a break!” That’s what many people will tell you when talking about your chronic pain, especially when traveling. It turns out that rest is often the worst thing you can do. The stiffness sets in, the pain takes over, and by the time you get moving again, you’re worse off than when you started.
Yes, we love to travel – but we must remember moderation. When my phone registered nearly eighteen thousand steps at 2 p.m. one day, I knew I needed to rest. It is ideal to rest before your body cries out in pain. This way you can take an hour or two off and then be energized for round two later. If you try to overcome the pain, you could find yourself completely out of commission the next day.
The trick is to keep your pain below a certain threshold. This threshold is up to you, of course. Perhaps it is a certain number of steps, kilometers or hours spent standing. Whatever you choose, make an agreement with yourself to sit or lie down a bit at this point to regroup.
Another thing to remember when it comes to movement is the importance of stretching. Taking the time to do your stretches and/or physiotherapy exercises at the hotel before leaving for the day will benefit you in the long run. These sections can also be useful at the end of a long day of walking, or even while waiting for the metro.
Look at the big picture
Travel is synonymous with experiences and memories. Don’t get into the “this is the only time I’ll be in Greece – I have to do everything” mindset. Even if that’s the truth, it won’t make your trip more enjoyable while you kill yourself trying to taste all the moussaka in Santorini. Be present, pace yourself, and accept your body for what it can do right now. Above all, enjoy your trip!
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