Tips on How to Travel with Chronic or Acute Pain
If you live with chronic pain or if you are always on alert due to acute pain, everyday tasks like cooking, cleaning, and showering can be difficult and simply exhausting. Being able to conserve energy and use it wisely is the name of the game. When traveling with pain, the stakes are amplified, and there’s more on the line to make the best use of your energy. But don’t fret—we’re here to provide some tips to make your journey with chronic or acute pain more comfortable. While this takes some extra planning and precautions, it doesn’t mean you can’t outsmart your pain and circumstances and see more of the world. So let’s prepare for more adventures!
Before the Trip
Communicate with Your Physical Therapy Team and Other Healthcare Providers
If you’re currently being treated by a physical therapist, then you are being seen by an expert in movement with a deep understanding of the conditions of your body. Communicate with your physical therapist about traveling with pain, including the duration of the trip and all the ways you expect to travel (plane, train, bus, boat, scooter, etc.). Together, you can create a plan of care to maintain or improve your comfort based on your traveling activities.
Give Yourself Extra Time and Focus to Pack
Adequate packing time helps reduce stress before, during, and after the trip because it gives you the confidence that you have everything you need to manage your pain.
Things to consider packing when traveling with chronic or acute pain: the Carry-on
- Place “pain management must-haves” in your carry-on or have them handy.
- Include a printout of your exercise program for the duration of your trip. Wi-Fi and battery life are luxuries when traveling—don’t count on electronics.
- Fill any prescriptions well in advance and have enough for the duration of your trip (plus three days’ extra supply in case of unforeseen delays). Always pack medications in your carry-on, and also consider bringing a record of your condition and a list of the medications you’re taking, just in case you need to show it for medical assistance or at TSA checkpoints.
- Pack stick-on, disposable heating/cooling pads and a neck pillow in a handy location for long flights, train rides, or road trips.
- Pack an empty, reusable water bottle—economical, environmentally friendly, and hydrating.
Things to consider packing when traveling with chronic or acute pain: the Suitcase
- Wear and pack a good pair of shoes for walking, standing, or even running, especially if you’re sightseeing. Expect the unexpected, too—two-pair minimum.
- Pack whatever you can fit to help you sleep comfortably.
- If you’re going to be in a food desert, then pack foods that are consistent with your health needs and won’t cause inflammation.
Purchase Tickets Well In Advance
The earlier you can book your travel, the better the opportunity to select a seat and to buy as much comfort as you can afford. Get business or first class if you can, but always select a seat that will allow extra space. An aisle seat enables you to more easily get up to stretch during the trip and have more breathing room while seated. If you cannot get an aisle seat, don’t be shy about asking your neighbors to let you get up to stretch throughout the journey.
Ship Luggage, Golf Clubs, Skis and Other Bulky Items to Your Destination
There are companies like Luggage Free, Send My Bag, and Lugless that can handle deliver directly to your hotel or other locations. It’s a game-changer if you can afford it. Just remember to not ship any necessities for comfort—keep your pain management must-haves in your carry-on.
Air Travel—Flying with Chronic or Acute Pain
Skip Security Lines
For anyone traveling with pain, waiting in security lines can be an excruciating experience. The most common concern we get at CORA is patients who are worried about standing still, then walking. But there are options here too. Consider getting TSA PreCheck or a Global Entry membership. Both options expedite the security screening portion of air travel considerably, and both are part of the Trusted Traveler program. Use the Department of Homeland Security’s interactive Trusted Traveler Tool to find the program that works best for you and your travel mates.
If your condition hinders airline travel because of long lines or prolonged standing periods, then you may qualify for medical assistance and request a wheelchair or guide. Airports are required to provide assistance, but it’s best to first check with your airline provider, then the airport itself to request this assistance. We recommend at least 48 hours’ notice, and ensure that the assistance is not only arranged for your airport entries, but also for airport exits. To learn more about the services available, reference this article from the U.S. Department of Transportation on Wheelchair and Guided Assistance.
Waiting for Your Flight
Once you’re through security, get to your gate early. If you can, move around to keep up good circulation because it won’t be as easy on the plane. Also, take a moment to inform the gate attendant that you would like medical assistance on the plane. More on that below.
Travel like a VIP
It’s no secret that most airlines have a membership or loyalty rewards program that offers benefits, especially for those traveling with chronic or acute pain. When the airline desk agent announces, “now boarding our super-exclusive platinum plated diamond members,” they are usually called first and given plenty of time to board and settle in. There are two ways to achieve this status: 1. Join the super-exclusive club; or 2. Take advantage of what most airlines offer—the magical phrase, “now boarding anyone who needs extra time or assistance.” Bingo—that’s your cue! Even if you are not using a wheelchair, you can still use this accommodation. Most chronic and acute pain is invisible to the outside world, and airline agents are trained to assist anyone that “self-identifies” as needing this service.
Another VIP tip for traveling with pain is to check out whether your airline or credit cards can get you into airport lounges. These lounges are spacious and are designed to provide convenience and comfort while traveling.
To ease stress for travelers, airports are seeing a rise in airport spas and massage stations. If you don’t want to spend money on a spa, some airports have yoga and meditation rooms to help.
Assistance All the Way to the Plane and Beyond
The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) provides airlines, both foreign and domestic, a rule of law with definitive rights for passengers of all flights traveling within, to, or from the United States. To learn more about ACAA and your rights as a citizen, then follow this link: here.
Ground travel – Cars, Trains, and More for Traveling with Chronic or Acute Pain
Consider Every Stop a Rest Stop
If you are driving or training with pain, then you know the longer the time in between stops, the more extreme the pain can be. Traveling with back or neck pain is the usual suspect here. Again, your all-important carry-on can come in handy. Is a rest stop a good time to treat yourself with a stick-on heating pad? Or how about a brief walk to get the circulation moving? Or to keep your physical therapist happy, what about that print-out of your exercise program!? Now you’re traveling like a VIP!
Renting a Car
Rent a car that gives you enough space, and opt for a vehicle with automatic opening doors and trunks. If you’re considering a handicap-accessible van, know that not all rental companies offer them. Check out places like Accessible Vans of America or Freedom Motors if a specially equipped van is a necessity.
Taxis and App-based Rides
Options are on the rise for comfortable rides with either taxis or car-sharing services. Uber is coming out with UberWAV, and Lyft is launching its Lyft AccessMode Pilot. If you’re not an app person or not in a region that offers this service, then your traditional taxi services MUST be told that you require a vehicle that is accessible for your condition.
All Aboard! Traveling on Trains with Pain
Trains are by far the most comfortable solution for traveling with pain. You have more space to sit, and you can stand up, stretch and even walk around anytime you’d like. If you’re prone to motion sickness, a front-facing seat is your better bet. But—as always—keep that carry-on bag close so your sense of stress is lower too.
Ship Ahoy! Sea Travel with Pain
Always, always, always check to see if all ports of call are ADA-compliant. Even if you don’t absolutely need an ADA-compliant port, you will at least know what to expect and can plan ahead.
If chartering a boat, ask the company if it would like a copy of your prescriptions and a note of your condition from your doctor and physical therapist.
If you have a wheelchair and are traveling on a cruise, book a room that is close to the elevator so you’re conveniently located for rest or fun. Also, ask for a room that is wheelchair-accessible and ADA-compliant.
- Double- and triple-check your essentials and your carry-on must-haves. This little step allows more focus on fun during your travels.
- Have your medical information with you at all times. Whether on a piece of paper or a medical alert bracelet or app, keep a list of your medications along with your doctor’s name and number.
- Pack as lightly as possible.
- Check for discounts for those who require special services or are limited to experiencing all the travel company has to offer.
- Consider travel insurance protection if you’re concerned that the trip you booked and the condition you have may not sync up when travel time comes.
The Journey Ahead
The goal of this article is to empower you to travel as much as your heart desires. As physical therapists, our job is to get you back to doing the things you love and spending quality time with the ones you love. Travel is one of the best things you can do to stay active, stay healthy, and increase the quality of your life instantly.
Of course, we understand that traveling with chronic or acute pain is not a simple journey, and it is easier to plan than to physically do. For more information about traveling and how physical therapy can benefit you, contact a local physical therapist to go over options and solutions.