Just Plane Flying With Ankylosing Spondylitis: On Travel Day

by Charis Hill Patient Expert

After I was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, I was not sure how to survive flying on a plane again and I did not know where to find answers to my questions: What would happen to my joints after sitting for so long? What about the back pain? What would it be like to do all that walking? Could I bring my cane? Were there ways I could make it easier on my body? I am now a seasoned flyer with several tools to share to help once you get to the airport. If you would like tips about booking your flights and preparing for your trip, read here.

Medication travel concept.

Manage your medications

Have your medications handy before going through security. If you take a biologic or another medication that needs to be refrigerated, pack it in a small cooler bag with an ice pack. Be sure to include the prescription label with it. Learn more about Transportation Security Administration (TSA) rules for traveling with medications here. If you regularly take as-needed medication for pain, you may want to take some before you board the plane, so it has time to kick in before takeoff. Remember to always take medications as prescribed and consult your doctor about any changes before you fly. Speaking of before you fly, here are some things you should be mindful of before you even book your flight.

Checked bag at airport.

Lighten your load

Consider checking as many bags as you can so you’ll have less to carry on, especially if you have multiple layovers. The more you carry, the harder your body has to work to juggle your pain and fatigue along with phones, tickets, and bags. And don’t forget to ask for help stowing your carry-on items once you’re on the plane. Flight attendants are ready to help, so take advantage of their training, especially if lifting overhead is difficult due to a rigid spine or painful joints.

Airport employees helping elderly couple to boarding area.

A note on wheelchairs

If standing and walking cause significant pain and fatigue, you can request to be pushed in a wheelchair from the check-in counter directly to your gate and in between gates. This is a complementary service for those who need it. If you use your own wheelchair or other assistive device, or if standing in line causes your symptoms to worsen, you can take this TSA card to the front of the security checkpoint line. Be prepared to state that you have a disability and cannot stand very long. You have the right to go through security faster to reduce strain on your body.

Preboarding flight from Turkey.

Pre-board the plane

When you arrive at your gate you can request to pre-board due to disability. If you have mobility limitations, pre-boarding allows you to get on the plane and settled before other passengers begin to board. This can help reduce unnecessary pain and fatigue from standing in line or crawling over people to get to your seat.

Man drinking water before early morning flight.

Prevent in-flight stiffness

Hydrate! Not only will it help you recover faster, but it can also force you to prevent stiff joints when you move and stretch by visiting the restroom more often. You can spend a few minutes in the back of the plane by the restrooms to stretch. Staying mobile can help get you off the plane with less pain and stiffness.

Playing games in flight to distract.

Keep busy while you sit

Consider doing seat exercises. Ask your doctor what seated stretches or exercises they recommend for you to do with your limitations before your trip. It also helps to distract yourself. Immersing yourself in an activity can help distract from pain, like watching a movie, reading, sleeping, or playing word games.

Wearing mask in airport.

Consider wearing a face mask

Many people with ankylosing spondylitis are immunocompromised and airplanes are enclosed spaces with a lot of germs. It is recommended to use a mask that will filter out 95 percent or more of fine particles.

Passenger pick-up at JFK international airport in NY.

Have ground transportation ready

Plan ahead to have a ride waiting at the airport. Once you’ve reached your destination, you will probably be tired, so having transportation set will ease stress and allow you to focus on retrieving your luggage.

Drinking water in flight.

Jumpstart travel recovery

Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! And rest. Build in a few hours, an evening, or a full day for rest after your flight rather than planning an activity immediately after you land. The better rested you are after landing, the better you should function for the remainder of the trip. If you feel able, do some stretching or take a short walk to help your joints readjust after flying.

Booking flight.

Practice self-care

Most importantly, be kind to yourself. Flying can be exhausting, and with a disease like ankylosing spondylitis you may experience increased symptoms like fatigue, pain, inflammation, and lower immunity. Knowing this in advance can empower you to prepare well for a successful flight and trip. Now that you have these tools, where will you fly next?

Charis Hill
Meet Our Writer
Charis Hill

Charis is a patient expert, writer, speaker, and spondylitis advocate in Sacramento, California. Her story has been featured in dozens of publications, including Arthritis Today Magazine, Mother Jones, CNBC, and her blog, BeingCharis. Charis’ life goal is to make ankylosing spondylitis a household name.