When you think of arthritis you think of someone older, don’t you? Perhaps a grandparent or someone clearly in retirement age. Well, rheumatoid arthritis can start as early as age 30 which was news to me! You can be struck with rheumatoid arthritis while you are in the middle of your child-rearing years. Asking around, I have found other middle-aged people living with rheumatoid arthritis. Unfortunately, you don’t actually know when a rheumatoid arthritis flare up will occur or what exactly triggers it. If you are at home, then managing chronic illness is much easier. I’ve got everything prepared for living with a debilitating chronic illness at hand – from crutches to a walk-in shower and my doctors on speed-dial. Over the last couple of years, I have learned traveling with rheumatoid arthritis is manageable. Here are my strategies for living with rheumatoid arthritis while still indulging a case of serious incurable wanderlust. Living with chronic illness requires adjustments but you play the cards you are dealt in life.
Living With Rheumatoid Arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis is another one of those autoimmune diseases where the body turns on itself. Mistakenly thinking, your otherwise healthy joints are diseased, your immune system attacks these joints and causes inflammation. And, is it painful!
Rheumatoid arthritis affects the joints – so the joints of the arms (elbows, wrists and fingers) and the joints of the legs (knees, ankles and feet).
Unluckily for me, when I have a rheumatoid arthritis flare up it affects my legs which makes me immobile. A total downer for someone who loves to be active and to travel. And, it’s a migratory rheumatoid arthritis – sometimes it goes after the knees, or maybe an ankle. I never know which leg joint is going to be the Chosen One.
There are some known causes for a rheumatoid arthritis flare-up but no definitive “this happened, here comes the arthritis” scenario. For example, stress and infection such as respiratory virus can lead to rheumatoid arthritis. My doctors tell me I seem I have arthritis caused by virus infections. Short of living in a sterile bubble, there’s not much to be done. So I roll the dice and go travelling with chronic illness.
Travelling With Arthritis
Stress is an arthritis trigger and travelling with kids is stressful. So I’m learning to manage stress levels so that I don’t have a rheumatoid arthritis flare up which will ruin our holiday.
Traveling with arthritis requires more thought than if you didn’t have a chronic illness. Obviously. I resisted this idea though for a long time and had a few mishaps. I’ve now learned that travelling with arthritis is my new normal. Maybe you can learn from my mistakes!
Pre-vacation prep can greatly reduce the stress levels that can trigger a rheumatoid arthritis flare up. Here are some ideas for pre-trip preparation when you are living with chronic illness:
- Start packing early. Not only is last minute packing stressful but it involves a lot of running around which is not good for you.
- Have a gentle stretch (or take a yoga class or pilates) before a long road trip or a long flight. Make sure you have a bit of mobility in your joints before you have to sit still for an extended period of time.
- Make sure your carry-on luggage is on wheels. In your carry-on luggage, make sure you have your medical history (or a letter from your doctor summarising your history) and any drugs you may need. Also remember any of your health supplements as well as any support bandages you may need. Yes, my carry-on bag tends to rattle a lot!
- Pack smart in your hold luggage. I’ve accepted that the days of travelling light are behind me. In my hold luggage, I take things that will make me comfortable if I have a rheumatoid arthritis flare up. For example, when I have a bout of rheumatoid arthritis, I need my organic bamboo clothing. Everything else makes my skin burn and itch. I always carry easy slip-on shoes too – if my ankle swells up I can’t wear any other shoes.
- Live well. Seriously. It’s boring but effective. Exercise. Take time to rest. Eat healthy. Reduce (or even cut out) your diet soda, caffeine and alcohol intake. I refused to believe it but I actually do feel better on a clean (but boring) diet. Lots of fresh fruit, vegetables, fish and chicken. Things like red meat, refined carbohydrates and even gluten can cause inflammation.
Flying With Arthritis
As I said, you don’t know when you will have a rheumatoid arthritis flare up so you have to be ready for it to occur at any time.
Flying with arthritis over a short-haul period is easier to manage than a long-haul flight. Your joints don’t have time to get as stiff and for the joint pain when flying to kick off.
Here are my tips for flying with arthritis for flights over 3+ hours.
- Upgrade your cabin selection. Having more room to stretch out makes a big difference in keeping your joints from seizing up. We tend to plan ahead and look out for when business class seats go on sale or try to use our miles to upgrade.
- Even if you fly economy, try and snag yourself a better seat. Exit rows on the aisle side have more legroom and once the plane has taken off, you can use a bag to elevate your feet.
- Can’t get an exit row and/or aisle seat? Then put all your stuff in the overhead compartment to maximise your leg room.
- Fly off peak times to maximise your chance of having no one sitting next to you.
- Be active in your rest time. Walk around when you can, stay hydrated and lay off the alcohol.
Does cabin pressure affect rheumatoid arthritis?
It’s unclear. Some studies have shown a connection between joint pain and cabin pressure in some cases. A unclear answer for an uncertain disease.
Road Trips When You Are Living With Chronic Illness
We love our road trips! Throw everyone and everything in the back of the car and set off on an adventure. Unfortunately, sitting still for a long time is not good for arthritis sufferers.
What can you do on road trips when you are living with rheumatoid arthritis?
- Get a bigger car. Yes, a more expensive solution but your joints will appreciate having room to stretch. On a recent trip, we got a seven seater so that I could lay across the back with my feet up.
- Schedule more stops so that you can get out and stretch your limbs.
Managing Chronic Illness on Vacation
So one of the big downside of living with rheumatoid arthritis is that you don’t know when you will have a flare up. But once you have the rheumatoid arthritis flare up, the pain will be excruciating.
Plan ahead for managing your chronic illness if it decides to make an unwelcome visit.
- Pick a place that has low humidity and a warm climate. We’ve been to the American Southwest, South Africa and other drier places recently for a reason. The cold and the damp are a bit of a trigger for my rheumatoid arthritis. If I can only go to warm hot places the rest of my life, it’s not really a hardship is it?
- Plan your trip so that there are activities you can skip if you don’t feel well. This summer we went with my brother’s family to Hershey Pennsylvania. Theme park heaven. I actually had to return to the hotel for one afternoon because my joints started hurting. And, the second afternoon, I took a civilised trolley tour of Hershey while the others were screaming their lungs out on roller coasters.
- Back to that pre-planing point, make sure you have packed right for whatever activities you will do. For me that means remembering orthopaedic insoles for my feet when take city breaks or go hiking. Forget style, I need support. And, I have elbow supports for when I play tennis. My rheumatoid arthritis is in my legs but it could travel anywhere.
- Choose your hotel room wisely. Ask to be either on the ground floor or pick a room near the elevator. Don’t be embarrassed to ask for a guest room that has disabled facilities like bathroom handrails. Luxury hotel rooms will also have more suitable amenities like a bigger bathroom or a walk-in shower.
- Once again, luxury hotel options will suit you better. Living with a chronic illness is not cheap to manage effectively. Hotels with amenities like a pool or hot tub mean you can relax your joints. If you are not up to walking, maybe you can just trundle down to the hotel restaurant or even opt for room service. Especially after a long flight or a long drive, treat yourself to a massage at the spa. Let someone work on your tired muscles, ease your joint pain after flying and destress you.
- Watch your diet. Boring, I know but essential since many studies have shown that food can trigger inflammation. You don’t need to find the nearest vegan restaurant or juice shop. We try to eat local and sample the local cuisine. I (try to) make healthy choices – lots of vegetables and fruit and fish.
A Rheumatoid Arthritis Flare Up Abroad
Despite all these precautions, I have had a rheumatoid arthritis flare up abroad several times. Usually it’s the summer and I’m in Pennsylvania. I keep telling my mother that her state just sends me into an allergy tailspin. One of my conspiracy friends insists that Penn State has done a lot of biomedical research and as a result, Pennsylvania is Ground Zero for allergies.
Anyway, I’ve spent more weeks than I would like managing a rheumatoid arthritis flare up when I am not home. Here are my suggestions on traveling with chronic illness:
- Have your medication with you. If you run out of medication, you can use your medical notes to tell a local doctor what your issues are and what medication you usually take.
- Have things ready to distract yourself while your family is out and about enjoying their vacation. I always have digital magazines, games, podcasts etcetera loaded onto my iPad so I can just rest and recuperate somewhere. They don’t feel guilt about enjoying their vacation and I don’t feel sorry for myself stuck on bedrest.
- Find an emergency clinic if you need to be seen by a doctor. There are always after-hour clinics and emergency clinics available for locals that visitors can use. Your travel insurance may cover the costs.
- Make a list of activities that you can prioritise. If you are laid up, then you can decide which ones you really want to participate in and when you think you can get to it.
- Have a back up plan for what you can do if you don’t feel well. Maybe you can hang out by the pool with the kids. Mine have gone mountain biking with their father and then came and and hung out with me poolside.
- Rest your joints. Really there is no way out of it. Accept your limitations. For example, at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello I was limping so badly, the tour guide offered me wheelchair. I should’ve swallowed my pride and accepted it because by the end of the tour, I was hobbling.
- Slow down. It’s all about time spent together as a family and sharing experiences than the number of items you have ticked off your list.
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I was recently commissioned by Mobility Plus to give my thoughts on living with rheumatoid arthritis. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
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