Tips for Traveling if You Have RA
Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: September 2013. | Last updated: November 2022
Most people jump at the opportunity to travel to an interesting destination for fun or work. Whether you are a natural traveler or a homebody, most of us occasionally need to travel for family matters and other reasons. However, if you have RA, travel can be a challenge.
Travel is associated with both physical and emotional stress that can be magnified if you have a condition like RA. Physical challenges such as lifting and carrying heavy luggage, spending extended periods of time on your feet, and sitting in cramped quarters (whether in a plane, car, or bus) can be particularly difficult if you have joint pain, inflammation, weakness, fatigue, or other symptoms common in RA. Emotional challenges such as the increased stress of trying to stick to a tight travel schedule, being in unfamiliar surroundings, or being out of your regular routine of eating, sleeping, and exercising can exacerbate the physical symptoms of RA and may even trigger a disease flare.
Despite all of these negatives, it is possible to travel, both safely and enjoyable, if you have RA. The key is in the planning. Take care of as much of the hard work involved in travel as you can before you step out of your home. The following are some tips for making travel easier if you have RA.
Work with your doctor on a travel action plan
As part of planning for any trip, you should talk to your doctor. Tell your doctor where you are going, how long you’ll be away, and what you are planning to do. Together with your doctor, you should put together a list of “do’s and don’t’s” and arrangements you can take care of before leaving. The list should look something like this:
- Foods you should avoid
- A daily schedule for rest and recovery while you’re on the road
- Arranging ahead for someone to carry luggage
- Activities you should avoid
- Arrange to use a wheelchair at the airport or other destinations
- Locate a care facility or doctor at your destination in case you need medical attention
- Have your doctor write a prescription for medications you may need
- Have your doctor write a letter describing your condition and what treatments you use
- Find out if your insurance will cover you while you travel and whether you should arrange for supplemental insurance
Travel with your medications and supplements
If you are going away, especially if you’ll be away for an extended period of time, you should carefully pack all of your medications, including prescription medications, over-the-counter medications, supplements, minerals, vitamins, and ointments. This is an important part of sticking to your normal routine. You may find that you use quite a few medications or other preparations on a daily or even weekly basis, so make a list. Make sure that you have enough of each of your treatments, supplements, or preparations to last you though your whole trip, plus a few extra days in case of emergency or delay.
Other than helping you stick to your routine, having all these items with you is important because you may be going to an unfamiliar place where it will be difficult to get some or all of the treatments or substances that you typically use. Because your mini-pharmacy will be difficult to replace, make sure you pack it in a carry-on bag and keep it with you as you travel.
Finally, find out whether some of the treatments you use are considered illegal or controlled in your destination country if you are traveling outside of the United States. For instance, some countries restrict the use of opiate pain killers. Check with the US State Department for instructions on what you should do if your medications are restricted in other countries. It is a good idea to keep your medications in their original containers. Your doctor should give you a letter explaining why you need certain prescription medications, including narcotic drugs and drugs that require a syringe for administration.
There is no substitute for planning when it comes to reducing travel stress
Some people are natural planners and others are not, but when it comes to reducing stress associated with travel, there is no substitute for having a comprehensive travel plan and making all arrangements (travel, lodging, tickets for attractions, and information about food and restrooms) ahead of time.
Start by making a day-by-day, detailed plan of what you will be doing and where you’ll be going. This will allow you to know exactly what you’ll need to pack, where you may need to make arrangements for a wheelchair or special transport, how you can plan to get some rest in between activities. A word to the wise! Build in extra time for rest and recovery and for taking the extra time you’ll need to have a relaxed and enjoyable experience wherever you are visiting.
Try to build into your travel plans an emergency exit that will allow you a way to cut short your trip should you suddenly experience a disease flare or another problem. Purchasing travel insurance (if it is available) can give you financial protection from unexpected difficulties and affords valuable peace-of-mind.
To help you in your travel planning, there are a number of web resources that offer information and services for the disabled traveler. The US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) provides a hotline for questions about airport accommodations for disabled travelers. Frommer’s (www.frommers.com) offers valuable information about accommodations and services for disabled travelers based on destination, including information for many cities in the US and Europe, as well as many resort locations. The website www.disabledtravelers.com also offers a range of useful travel information for individuals with disabilities.
Stick to your routine for diet and exercise
It’s a good idea to stick (as closely as possible) to your routine for healthy eating and exercise while you are on the road. As someone with RA, you know better than most people the importance of watching what you eat. When you are on the road it is tempting to be adventurous when it comes to diet. However, the wiser course is to be conservative and stick to what you know will not bring on RA symptoms. Avoid drinking too much alcohol, and make sure you eat fresh vegetables, whole grains, fresh fruits, and meat and fish in smaller amounts. Make sure that your diet includes sources of good omega-3 fatty acids (olive oil, flaxseed oil, fish) and limits sources of bad omega-6 fatty acids (red meat, egg yolks, full-fat dairy products).
It may be a challenge, but while you are on the road, try to stick to a schedule for regular exercise, including flexibility exercises to maintain range of motion and loosen stiff muscles. If you are traveling by car, try getting out every 90 minutes or so to stretch and walk around. If you’re stuck in a plane for a long period of time, you can walk up and down the aisle every hour or so to keep from getting too stiff. When you’ve reached your destination, make sure that your daily plan includes a period for stretching and relaxation. If you are visiting a vacation destination, you may already be planning to do a lot of walking. If you’re not planning on walking much during your travels, make sure you build into your daily schedule a brisk 30-minute walk.
Assistive devices that may be useful during travel
- This handy device is useful for supporting your head and reducing strain on your neck whether you are a passenger in a car or plane
- A pillow that is specially designed to fit between the curve of your lower back (around the waist area) and your seat can help reduce back pain that you get from sitting still for too long
- Placing a small pillow on the armrest of your seat in a plane or car can make it easier to maintain good posture by using your arms to help prop up your body
- Remember to take any splints or elastic wraps that you use to increase joint stability
- A light-weight, foldable camp stool is a good way resting your legs while visiting museums or standing in line for attractions
- Plan ahead and see if there are mobility devices (wheelchairs, walkers, scooters) available wherever you are visiting
Adapted from Fox B, Taylor N, Yazdany J. Arthritis for Dummies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, Inc; 2004.