10 Tips for Pain-Free Travel With Osteoarthritis

by Lambeth Hochwald Health Writer

If you’re among the 40 million Americans who have osteoarthritis, you know that traveling requires a little bit of planning in order to get from point A to point B without having a flare. And, while traveling might be the last thing on your mind right now, here are some tips to feeling good from head to toe, whether you’re traveling by plane, train or car.

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Get Up and Move

No matter your mode of travel, it’s pivotal to stop every half hour to an hour and move. This will not only promote blood flow and circulation, but it will activate your muscles and keep your joints from becoming stiff and painful, says Matt Likins, an orthopedic physical therapist in Detroit. “Those with arthritis pain know all too well that sitting still—more specifically getting up after sitting still—can be very challenging,” he says. “The easiest way to fight back is to avoid being stationary for prolonged periods of time.”

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Take Feel-Good Remedies With You

While you’re sure to pack your medications in the event of a flare-up be sure to pack other items too that will turn a painful trip into a smooth one. “If you find that cold works, instant ice packs like those used by athletic trainers are cheap and easy to carry,” Likins says. “Heat is a little trickier but powdered instant heat patches (like these from Thermacare) can do the trick in a pinch.”

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Pack a Supportive Pillow

Back pain is common when you have osteoarthritis and are on the road for long periods of time, whether driving or sitting in an airplane seat. “That’s why I recommend that my patients utilize a pillow or some sort of lumbar support while sitting for extended periods of time,” says Kasey Adinolfi, primary clinician at Physical Therapy & Sports Medicine Centers in Wethersfield, Connecticut. “This will facilitate better posture and decrease spinal compression.”

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Stay Warm

One definite cause of flares: Temperature changes, suggests Sonali Khandelwal, MD, a rheumatologist and associate professor of internal medicine at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. “A train or airplane is often quite cold and it’s not always possible to adjust the temperature,” she says. “That’s why I suggest you bring something with you to insulate the areas of your body that tend to flare, whether it’s your knee or hip. A blanket or shawl will work wonders to keep your body warm while you’re in transit.”

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Do Some Exercises While You’re Sitting

If, for some reason, you can’t get up and move around—perhaps the airplane is taxiing or you’re traveling through turbulence, you can still perform exercises to stay limber. These include ankle pumps or light shoulder rotations. “This will keep your muscles activated and your joints protected,” Adinolfi says. “Try this next time you’re sitting in place: Wiggle your toes, bend your knees and repeat as often as you can.”

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Review Your Meds Before You Hit the Road

If you’re planning a long trip, you’ll want to review the medication you need for the time you’re away. “Keep in mind that the stress of a trip could make your osteoarthritis harder to manage,” says Edwin Ladd Jones III, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at AICA Orthopedics in Atlanta. “A doctor can help you evaluate all of your options and help prescribe the medication that might help make your travel less stressful.”

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Never Underestimate the Value of a Good Stretch

In order to help you avoid a flare-up when you’re traveling, always consider the value of stretching. “Performing gentle stretches can serve to shorten periods of inactivity as well as promote healthy movement and loading through the affected joints,” says Jordan Duncan, a chiropractor and owner of Silverdale Sport & Spine, a clinic specializing in difficult-to-treat musculoskeletal pain conditions in Silverdale, Washington. “By standing up to walk and gently stretch, you’ll maintain the range of motion in your joints.”

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Drink Lots of Water

Pack a water bottle (squeeze some lemon or lime for an additional taste upgrade) and be sure to stay hydrated while you’re on the road. “This helps blood flow and keeps your joints supple and lubricated,” says Brittany Ferri, an occupational therapist in Rochester, New York, who works with osteoarthritis patients. “This will also encourage you to take stretch breaks as you need to get up and use the bathroom.”

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Don’t Forget Your Hands

If your osteoarthritis manifests most in your hands and fingers, make a game plan to avoid flare-ups. This includes packing hand warmers and avoiding spending the entire trip talking on the phone and cradling it in your hands. “In addition, if you’re having to do all the driving your hands might become quite painful,” says Dr. Jones. “That’s yet another reason why it’s even more important to take breaks.”

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Listen to Your Body

In the end, the most important thing you can do is to tap into what’s okay and what’s not okay given the way you tend to experience your symptoms. “The technique of ‘energy conservation’ for severe arthritis (plan one trip upstairs, not three), for example, applies with travel,” Likins says. “If you know that sitting for more than an hour will cause you issues, plan accordingly. Or, if you know that you need a rest for every five (or 15 minutes) of walking, plan your walk to the airport gate accordingly.” The best way to travel and avoid a flare: “If you know your limits at home, respect them on the road,” Likins adds.

Lambeth Hochwald
Meet Our Writer
Lambeth Hochwald

Lambeth Hochwald is a consumer lifestyle reporter covering health, fitness, marriage and family.