20 Tips to Travelling with Chronic Back Pain

I am an avid traveller. Or rather, I was. In 2011 when I was in university, I spent 6 months in Paris for a “student exchange programme”. That was what they call it. We, on the other hand, took it as an opportunity to travel. What classes? 

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Visiting the Loire Valley during a weekend on our Student Exchange Programme

Two years down the road I found myself entering the workplace. And it was also the point where I suffered a slipped disc in my low back. The pain persisted and became chronic. Till today, four years after, I experience daily constant back pain (at times debilitating).

I thought my days of travelling were over. If I can barely sit through a 2-hour movie, how can I possibly sit through an 11-hour flight? 

I won’t tell you it’s easy, but I will tell you it’s possible. In June, we flew from Singapore to Athens, travelled 5 cities in 18 days across Greece and Italy, of course, not without making plenty of adjustments and special arrangements on my part, one of which even required me to buy an extra seat on the plane. But if you are a travel geek like me, you would understand when I say that the moment I stepped foot in our destination, it was all worth it.

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Two seats for me and one for Edwin 😀

So here are 20 tips to survive travelling with pain and minimize the chance of spending most of your trip lying in bed. 

(Disclaimer: I have found these tips useful for my condition and I do not claim that they will work for everyone. I do hope however that those traveling a bad back will find some useful tips here.) 

    1. Get lots of rest the week before you travel – sleep well, go for massages. Be careful not to do anything that may possibly overstrain your back and cause a flare up. I would also suggest to take a day off work before your trip just to relax your mind and body.
    2. Bring a small (foldable) pillow for long plane or train rides to support your back. You can also roll up a towel or jacket.
    3. Get a doctor’s letter for any pain medications that you are taking, if you are bringing them in significant quantities. Bring extra medication in case of flare ups.
    4. Set your expectations right. Do not try to squeeze too many things in one day. Allow plenty of time to rest in between. I usually plan for one main attraction or activity a day (which can take a couple of hours to half a day), any more is a bonus.
    5. Spread out your itinerary. Don’t move around too many cities in too short a time. Cater a day of rest in between cities so that you have time for your body to recover. Sightseeing does not have to be making a list of attractions to check off one by one,  I’ve found it equally enjoyable sitting in a cafe, or by the beach, enjoying a cup of coffee or a gelato.

    6. Communicate with your travel partner(s) before and during the trip. Tell them how much you can and cannot do. It helps when you and your travel partner(s) have matching expectations.
    7. Research. Know exactly where you need to go to avoid making unnecessary detours (having to figure out directions to the hotel while your hands are full with luggages is not a fun experience)
    8. Stay in a central location near to the main attractions so that it is easy for you to go back and rest if you need to. Location of hotel is crucial.
    9. Booking an extra seat on the airplane will allow you to lie down throughout the flight (lucky for me I am small sized). It’s not the most comfortable, but it’s better than nothing. Or upgrade to first class if you can afford it.
    10. Listen to your body. Rest if you need to, even if it means staying in for half a day. Your body will thank you for it.
    11. Pack light. And get someone travelling with you to help lift your luggage at airport security and onto the plane’s baggage compartment. If not, it doesn’t hurt to ask a stranger. Most people would be happy to give a helping hand.
    12. Carry a backpack instead of a sling or handbag. It evens the weight on your shoulders. Also, resist the urge to overdo the shopping. You can’t expect to carry around a bunch of stuff and feel good by the end of the day.
    13. Wear comfortable shoes. I love Skechers because they feel like walking on clouds! Comfort over style, always.
    14. Bring heat pads, massagers, essential oils, whatever that helps provide temporary relief to sore and achy muscles after a tiring day.
    15. Don’t forget to do your daily routine of stretches in the morning and before bed.
    16. Don’t push yourself to follow the group. In Santorini, we joined a day tour which took us up a volcano on foot.  When we reached the first out of three pit stops, I knew there was no way I could make it to the top. So we waited (and took lots of pictures) while the group went up. Which brings me to my next point.
    17. Always go free and easy. It is tough keeping up with tour groups. Free and easy allows you to see what you want to see at your own pace, and not having to waste your limited energy seeing things you don’t.
    18. Be flexible. Things will not always go the way you have planned. It’s ok if you didn’t manage to go someplace on your list. Be thankful for the things you managed to do and the unforgettable experiences.
    19. Have loads of fun! It helps take your mind away from the pain. But do it in moderation. Having a chronic back pain condition (or any condition) means that there will be limitations to what you can physically do. Please do not try extreme sports like skydiving or bungee jumping. You get the idea. For myself, doctors have even advised against roller coasters. But it doesn’t mean you can’t have fun 😉
    20. Have a positive mindset. You are in control of your pain. Your pain does not control you. Your pain does not define you. Yes, you with the wild and restless heart. Adventure is waiting. Are you ready?

 

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P.S. I can’t thank Edwin enough for being the most patient and understanding travel partner. It was not easy for him to carry all of our luggage across canals, cobble stoned bridges, and up the 4th floor to our Airbnb with no lift! Could not have done it without him.

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