The Travel Hangover

The Travel Hangover

Those of us living with rheumatoid arthritis/rheumatoid disease (RA/RD) are familiar with the interplay of activity, rest, and pain levels. Lack of exercise can increase RA/RD symptoms, but so too can overexertion. There’s a delicate balance at play, and the ideal middle ground has fuzzy boundaries that change based on any number of factors including stress, sleep quality, weather, and nutrition, to name just a few. When the parameters of the activity “sweet spot” are constantly fluctuating, it can be extremely challenging to be on target.

Being off-target and getting too little or too much exercise can lead to increased RA/RD symptoms. Sometimes, this is in the form of a full-blown flare. Other times, there’s what I’ve coined an “activity hangover.” This is a mild increase of RA/RD symptoms that typically follows overexertion. Less severe than a full-blown flare, an “activity hangover” involves pain, fatigue and inflammation are not debilitating, but certainly more significant than prior to the activity.

I’ve long recognized my activity hangovers, but I’ve realized there’s a special brand of activity hangover that comes with the multiple stressors involved in traveling: the “travel hangover.”

Travel usually involves multiple flare triggers. Trips often involve physical activity in multiple forms: sightseeing; special activities such as hiking or snorkeling; and increased walking when traveling without a car. On the flip side, travelling also involves a lot of sitting, which, ironically, can be just as problematic as overexertion. Much of this sitting takes place in seats that are uncomfortable for long stretches and may involve lots of jostles and bumps along the way.  Furthermore, travel impacts sleep via time changes, sleeping in unfamiliar surroundings, and not being on a regular schedule. Nutrition can be affected by the availability of fresh and healthy foods and lack of access to a kitchen. Even the change in climate of a different locale can impact RA/RD symptoms, not to mention the air pressure changes of airplane travel and the inflammation it can cause.

The travel triggers

This summer I travelled internationally, and I experienced all of these triggers. Miraculously, during our 17 days of travel, I did not have a full-blown flare. Some days were better than others, the last few days involved a little limping and the need for extra rest, but for the most part my body withstood the demands of travel incredibly well. Always grateful for a good day, I kept telling my husband and kids of the gratitude I felt that my body wasn’t in a lot of pain and that I was able to participate in so many fun activities.

It was a truly wonderful trip, spent reuniting with relatives, seeing unfamiliar parts of the world, sharing other cultures with my children, and remembering that humans come up with all different ways to structure their worlds. I am so glad I took that trip.

The activity hangover to end all activity hangovers

At the same time, three weeks since returning home my body is still paying a price. This travel hangover has been an activity hangover to end all activity hangovers.

I’ve experienced extreme muscle tightness; back, neck, and hip pain; increased inflammation; and a deep, persistent fatigue. While there have been a couple of days where I could not carry out my normal activities, for the most part the severity of these symptoms has not been as severe as what I consider a “full-blown flare.” Yet, day after day after day of increased pain, inflammation, and fatigue certainly takes a toll.

Before this trip, I was aware that travel can cause an activity hangover, but somehow I didn’t foresee that a big trip would cause a big activity hangover. I am storing this knowledge away so that the next time we take an extended travel, I will keep my calendar as open as possible for the weeks afterward. This travel hangover has led me to spend most of my weekends resting. While this has felt nourishing to my fatigued body, it has necessitated some cancellations. Next time, I will work to remember that RA/RD continually carries a cost. When it comes to traveling, that cost is an expectation of immediate normalcy in the face of a travel hangover.

Do you experience travel hangovers? Have you found any tips or strategies that help reduce your activity hangover after a trip?

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