5 Tips for Surviving Vacation with Chronic Pain

I enjoy a good meal, a good vacation, or a good movie, much as anyone else would.
— Terence Tao

It’s that time of year! School is out. The trees are green. That summer heat has arrived.

And it’s vacation time!

Vacationing can be daunting for those of us with chronic pain. Taking a trip away from our doctors? Away from the comfort zones of our homes? Yeesh, scary! But scary doesn’t mean impossible. Here are five tips for surviving your vacation with chronic pain.

Choose Your Destination Carefully

Not all vacation spots are created equal, and when battling chronic pain, this needs to be taken into account. Disney World might be great for children and families, but it’s not so great for migraines or back pain. Acadia National Park is perfect for hikers and outdoors enthusiasts, but it’s not perfect for people with wheelchairs or limited mobility. A religious pilgrimage can be an illuminating and spiritual experience, but it’s less so if you spend the entire experience bedridden or chained to the nearest toilet.

Pain is different for everyone, and thus something that might trigger an increase in pain in me might not cause an increase in pain in you. Take a moment to jot down your triggers. Below is a list to help get you started:

  • Stress

  • Overexertion

  • Temperature swings

  • Weather patterns

  • Inflammatory foods

Now, let’s consider the other side of the coin. What decreases your symptoms? Since this is so dependent upon each person and their individual pain, I will have to leave y’all to it. I can, however, share some of the things that I have found helpful:

  • An individual bedroom to retreat to when the pain becomes too much.

  • Air-conditioning, especially in hot environments since heat can be triggering for me.

  • Quiet living conditions, so avoiding cities, subways/trains, and construction sites as noise can also be triggering for me.

Plan for Extra Time to Arrive

My mother would insist that even healthy folks should schedule plenty of extra time to make their destination. All sorts of things could delay arrival: congested traffic, bathroom breaks, brief stops along mountain passes to throw snowballs . . . .

When you have chronic pain, planning extra time becomes less of a social nicety and more of a coping mechanism. Regular car stops to walk and stretch can help sore muscles and swollen joints. Regular bathroom stops can be a godsend for someone with irritable bowel syndrome. Picking up some ice cream at a passing drive-thru can be a great emotional pick-me-up after a long drive.

Airports, in particular, are a nightmare to negotiate. There’s baggage checking, security lines, arrival announcements, departure delays, and if you aren’t racing halfway across the concourse towards your next flight, then you are waiting, waiting, waiting . . . . As a general rule, I avoid flying whenever possible. However, if you have to fly, choose to arrive early so that there is less stress involved as you navigate the lines and crowds. Also consider connecting flights with longer layovers – overnight layovers are especially rejuvenating as you get a chance to book a hotel and sleep in a proper bed, but any layover that doesn’t involve sprinting is decent rest for your body. If you can afford it, flying first class or direct can make the whole trip easier too.

Take EVERYTHING

Do you see the capitalization in the title here? No? Should I write it again?

Take EVERYTHING!

Got it? Good! If you might need it, take it. If it might make you more comfortable, take it. This includes ALL medications, especially medications for emergency situations, but also that antacid you keep in the back of your medicine cabinet. (Speaking from personal experience, you do not want to wake up in a strange place at 3am with major heartburn and no antacid on hand. Ignoring the heartburn for a moment, the sleep deprivation itself will ruin the next day.)

Here is a small list of other items I would recommend taking:

  • Pillows! Lots and lots of pillows!

  • Blankets

  • Heating pads and ice packs

  • Comfortable clothes

  • Medicinal teas and foods

  • Emergency foods (i.e., safe foods you know you can eat and won’t upset your digestive system)

  • Essential oils

Don’t Try to Solo It

To segue from the above tip of taking everything you might need into this next tip, be sure to take a traveling companion with you. Particularly a traveling companion who can help haul all of your stuff (let’s face it, at least one suitcase will be designated for medicines and medically-related items).

But in all seriousness, don’t travel alone. I can’t tell you how many times I have had a migraine in the middle of an airport and the only reason I got anywhere was because someone latched onto my arm and dragged me along. There is a certain sense of security with having a companion that is aware of your medical problems. If the pain gets worse, your companion can pick up the slack and take care of things while you rest and recuperate.

Expect Bad Days, Hope for Good Days

Unfortunately, no matter how you prepare and plan, there will be bad days. I wish it were otherwise. It would be lovely to take a vacation from chronic pain. But aside from a drug-induced stupor at your local hospital, which let’s be honest, you won’t be awake enough to enjoy anyway, a vacation from chronic pain isn’t likely in the cards.  

So expect the bad days. Pack your bad day survival kit. And when these days hit, remind yourself that there are good days too. The bad days are just days to get through.  

This spring I was able to join a family vacation for the first time in years. At first I regretted my decision, because I spent the first two days bedridden and in a lot of pain. But then the third day dawned and I had a wonderful day full of beaches and tidal marshes, alligators and baby turtles, wine and salty potato chips.

When a good day comes, make the most of it. Live in the moment! Seek out the things that bring you joy! Even if the next day becomes a bad day, you will have those precious memories to hold on to and the proof that good days are coming.