Tips to manage chronic pain on summer vacation

A guest column by the American Society of Anesthesiologists, exclusive to

It’s officially that time of year. Summer is in full-swing, and all of America is getting ready to take a much-needed holiday.

However, some Americans, particularly those who suffer from chronic pain, often dread getting away. They are afraid their chronic pain might prevent them from having a good and restful vacation. They ask, “Will the long flight wreak havoc on my back?” Some of my patients even forgo trying to get away on holiday due to these fears.

Other patients fear going away on a vacation because they worry they will not enjoy themselves or will overextend themselves physically, making their holiday time away worse than if they had just stayed home.

We know it is a human need to recharge our batteries, get away and take care of ourselves. These vacations allow us to enjoy our families, experience new cuisines and go sightseeing –  so many things can be accomplished during the vacation season to better ourselves and enjoy a break from the routine.

In my own practice as a physician anesthesiologist who specializes in chronic pain, I often give patients with these fears a more certain and brighter outlook on summer travel by sharing some strategies. Here are some tips to optimize your vacation experience and make the most of your summer!

Planning for your trip

As you prepare your itinerary, try to replicate the activities you will participate in while on vacation at home before you leave. When we’re on a trip, we tend to both walk and stand for longer periods of time than we normally would at home. I often suggest to my patients that they try to increase their activities to mirror what they will be doing on vacation. This will help improve your overall conditioning and allow you to better enjoy your time away with family. This might mean longer walks at home to build up your overall endurance for activity. Sometimes, physical therapy can also be beneficial at this time. In doing these activities, my patients often prove to themselves that they CAN have a good time and prepare for the increased activity they will be taking part in.

Additionally, for patients who receive injection therapy to manage their pain, I will often provide a booster or preemptive injection to ensure my patient is as comfortable as possible while they are away from home and unable to visit the office. If my patient is across the country or vacationing in Europe, I want to be sure they are having the best time possible. My most recent patient, Mr. John Adams (identifying information changed), who is a retired 72-year-old from the State Department, loves to travel to Europe. These trips remind him of his days working for the government. However, now he is older and is somewhat limited by his back pain. Two weeks ago, he came into the office requesting a preventative injection before traveling to Germany. He was just starting to be uncomfortable and wanted to be sure to remedy the pain in an efficient manner so he could enjoy his trip to the Black Forest.

For other patients, I want to ensure their levels of comfort remain high during vacation after successfully managing their chronic pain for several months. To accomplish this, I always make sure they have their appropriate medications while traveling. These medications are extremely important for the health of the patient, so it is highly encouraged and recommended to keep these medications close at hand when traveling. It’s best to keep them in your carry-on that is with you at all times. Often, suitcases, and therefore medications, can be lost – a bad way to start your holiday. Keep your medications in a backpack or a suitcase you always have at your side. Another recommendation is to take pictures of your pill bottles as well as the medication inside. This way, if there’s any concern or confusion about the type of medication you are taking, there is a clear record.

Getting there

Whether near or far, most trips require a period of travel to reach the desired destination. For those of you traveling by plane, here are some tips to stay comfortable while in the air.

First, be mindful of the way you are sitting on the plane. Don’t slouch, and if you can, place a pillow between your lower back and the back of your seat to support your lumbar region. Keeping your knees bent at a right angle will offset stress on the lower back as well. You can also use a good neck support pillow that contours the shape of your neck naturally and will allow you to remain as comfortable as possible.

During the flight, move around. If possible, stand up and walk around for five minutes every hour to engage your muscles. While standing, bend and stretch to increase blood flow to your upper back. While seated, rotate your shoulders to prevent muscle spasms and stretch your calves to reduce the risk of developing blood clots.

Drinking is another integral part of any plane ride – water, that is. Start hydrating several days before your trip and drink water throughout the flight to combat the dry cabin air. Dehydration exacerbates joint stiffness and can make back issues worse.

You’ve arrived! Now what?

Be sure to bring a walking stick, or a walking stick with a foldable chair, on your holiday. Often when walking through amusement parks or just along a quaint Main Street, you need stability as well as a chair to sit on. Having a walking stick, which is used for hiking, can give older patients a sense of stability and comfort. A cane with a foldable seat, also gives you a sense of stability and an easy chair to sit on if necessary.

These are just a few ideas to help you enjoy that much-needed time away.

For those people who want that holiday break, but feel their medications are limiting or that their overall physical condition is not where it should be, do not be discouraged.  I recommend seeing a physician anesthesiologist, who specializes in pain medicine and can help you find a solution. In fact, Mrs. Susan Brown (identifying information changed), a 66-year-old woman and former professor of English, came to me with such a wish. She stated she had tried medications and physical therapy, and her overall condition was not ready for surgery, so that was not an option for her either. We were able to provide her with an injection in her lumbar spine to give her pain relief so she could travel to Walt Disney World with her grandchildren. I just received a letter from her stating she could not believe how active she was after the injection and more importantly, she was truly able to be a hands-on grandmother to her grandchildren on their unforgettable vacation.

I hope these patient stories and tips to manage chronic pain while traveling this summer leave you encouraged to pack your bags, grab the sunscreen and enjoy the summer season to the fullest.

John Dombrowski is an anesthesiologist.

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