Traveling with RA

Many people spend a lot of time planning their vacations and making packing lists. However, when you have rheumatoid arthritis there are some additional considerations, and being well prepared can make the difference between the trip being a waste of time and money or a wonderful adventure.

Carrying RA medications while traveling

It is important to plan ahead for the medications that will be needed on the trip. If it will be a longer stay, it is sometimes necessary for the pharmacy to request an override from the insurance company to allow for refills before a certain date or to authorize more than a month’s worth of medications. Medications that have to be kept cold require additional planning, as a small cooler will be needed and long travels may require additional ice once the cold packs warm up. If syringes are being transported, airport security may require a doctor’s letter stating that the traveller is prescribed the medication and needs to travel with the syringes. Routine medications need to make the trip, as well as prescriptions taken on an “as needed” basis, as you can never know how your body will feel on a journey. It is also important to bring any over-the-counter medications and aides that may bring comfort during a trip.

When I travel, I carry larger quantities of my medications in my luggage and put smaller quantities of meds I may require during the voyage in my carry-on or purse. This way if I need a painkiller, a sleep aide, a medicated pain relief patch, or an anti-nausea med, I have it readily available.

RA-friendly luggage

It’s called luggage for a reason, and it’s far easier to lug it from the car to the airport/parking deck/hotel if it’s ergonomic. Luckily nowadays there are many models on wheels to choose from, but they are definitely not all created equal. Some roll smoother than others, some maneuver with greater ease, and the extendable handles on some models are easier to tug than others. The first time I went on a major trip after my RA diagnosis, I went to a number of stores so that I could “test drive” various pieces of luggage. A friend accompanied me and brought a backpack, and we placed this inside of the bags I was interested in so that I could get a feel for how comfortable or uncomfortable it was to walk around the store rolling the weighted bag behind me. The one I liked best has a very different handle than the majority of rolling bags. Rather than a “U” shaped handle, with two bars coming from the bag and a horizontal handle connecting them, the suitcase I selected has one bar coming from the bag and a handle that moves with your hand. Therefore, as you pull it the handle twists to the position that is most natural for your hand, and it is far more comfortable than the more common models that require your hand to twist in an unnatural angle in order to hold the horizontal handle. My suitcase also turns on a dime, which further reduces the strain on my joints when maneuvering it through an airport or hotel lobby.

Even though an ergonomic suitcase goes a long way in decreasing strain on joints, if I'm navigating the enormous Atlanta airport, which is closest to my hometown, I'm still going to feel the impact of pulling my luggage around.  Therefore, I put my wrist splints in an outer pocket and preemptively put them on once I arrive at the airport.  These are also lifesavers during a road trip, and can mean the difference between arriving at my destination in one day or requiring a second day of travel due to wrists that can't handle any more driving.

Travel Pillows

Rheumatoid arthritis pain can make it incredibly difficult to get comfortable enough to fall asleep, and this is even more likely when sleeping in an unfamiliar bed after a day of walking around to see the sights. Therefore, I always bring some form of pillow with me on trips. If I’m traveling by car, I always bring my own pillow for my head, as one that is too thick or too thin will lead to discomfort, and even nice hotels don’t always have a pillow that gives my neck the support I need. I have even stuffed a pillow into my suitcase when space allows or have brought one as an “extra item” for carryon (I put it in two pillowcases so that the top pillowcase is exposed to the airport and plane and the pillowcase underneath stays clean). When I have to pack lighter, especially for flights, I rely on inflatable neck pillows. Using one during the flight reduces strain on my neck and shoulders, but I find these helpful even after the flight is over. I am a side-sleeper, and I blow up inflatable pillows to use between my knees and ankles. I have another travel pillow that stuffs into a small sack and then expands when fluffed, and I like to put this under my elbow and wrist, as this additional support decreases the likelihood of pain during the night or upon waking. This travel pillow also provides lumbar support during flights if the airline isn’t handing out individual pillows. I have even used rolled up hotel towels to support my joints when multiple pillows aren’t available. These options take up very little space in a suitcase, but can provide significant comfort for aching joints.

Necessary distractions from RA pain, like music

Whenever I travel I bring an iPod loaded with a variety of music, including calm, relaxing melodies and even some guided imagery tracks. If I’m in a lot of pain while traveling, it is very helpful to distract my brain and thereby relax my body by listening to some calming sounds.

RA-friendly footwear

It can be quite difficult to find shoes that are comfortable for arthritic joints. However, comfortable, supportive shoes are of vital importance when traveling, as there is often more walking involved (whether planned or unplanned) than in everyday life. In addition, when flying it’s important to wear shoes that will allow for the additional swelling that often occurs with the pressure changes during flight. I like lace-up options so that I can loosen the laces during flights. On long voyages, I change into a pair of socks and sandals before take-off so that I can make sure my swollen toe joints won’t be in agony inside my shoes for a 10-hour flight.

Other considerations

Moula. Traveling can be expensive, and this is all the more true with arthritis. Whereas I was willing to stay in hostels or go camping before my diagnosis, now that I have RA I want to make sure I will have a supportive surface to sleep on, so I stay in hotels or rented houses. I also splurge for some items that I wouldn’t if not for my RA, such a rental luggage carts at airports if I have multiple bags, and taxis to go distances that I would lug my bags on foot if I were pain-free. While I hate to make a trip more expensive than necessary, I am able to enjoy the trip far more if I reduce some of the strain on my body through minor splurges.

In addition to all of the items that go into a bag, it’s also important for travellers with RA to give some extra thought to their itineraries. I try to plan activities for the morning, when I am likely to have more energy, and include some rest time in the afternoon. I also try to avoid scheduling big days back-to-back, so that I build some rest into the schedule on a day following a significant excursion. If I am traveling with others, I let them know ahead of time that I may not feel up for every activity that’s on the itinerary, so that they know beforehand there’s a possibility they may be doing some activities without me. While traveling has become a bit more complicated since having RA, as long as I pack and schedule to accommodate my self-care needs, it is every bit as spectacular.

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