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home : columns : dr. k May 24, 2016

8/18/2014 11:31:00 AM
Plan ahead so that arthritis pain doesn't spoil vacation

DEAR DOCTOR K: Can you give me advice for managing arthritis pain while traveling?

DEAR READER: Vacations often involve being more physically active than normal, which can worsen arthritis pain. But arthritis doesn't have to spoil your vacation. I spoke to my colleague Dr. Susan Ritter, associate physician in the Division of Rheumatology, Immunology and Allergy at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital. She made the following suggestions to help make travel relatively pain- and hassle-free:

-- BOOK FOR ACCESSIBILITY. Book direct flights so you don't have to trek through airports to make connections. You may be deterred by the extra cost of a direct flight. If so, think again. Consider the entire cost of the vacation, and then consider the possibility that your arthritis pain will spoil the vacation.

If your pain is pretty bad, treat yourself well. Call the airline ahead of time to request a wheelchair. Avoid trips that involve a lot of sightseeing on foot. Instead, line up a guided bus or car tour.

-- PACK LIGHT. Bring only the basics -- ideally, outfits you can mix and match.

-- LIFT CAREFULLY. Use wheeled bags to minimize lifting. When you do have to lift your bag, bend from your knees to avoid straining your back.

-- BRING COMFORTABLE SHOES. Wear sturdy walking shoes for sightseeing. Make sure they have good arch support and heel support. Save your flip-flops for the pool.

-- CARRY A FEW ACCESSORIES. Adding these small items to your luggage will make your trip a lot more comfortable:

*Travel-sized heat and cold packs.

*An inflatable neck pillow and lumbar support for long car, train or airplane rides.

*A knee sleeve or elastic bandage to support and cushion sore knees.

-- KEEP MOVING. During long airplane trips, try to get up and walk around for a few minutes once an hour to keep your joints moving.

-- PACE YOURSELF. Do the more physical parts of your sightseeing early in the day when you're fresh and energetic. Plan breaks throughout the day. And don't overdo it at the start of the trip, only to find yourself unable to enjoy the end.

-- TAKE YOUR MEDICINES. Bring along any pain relievers you may need while away. Make sure you bring enough medication to last while you're gone -- plus a few days' extra.

Keep your medications in your carry-on bags. Never put your pain medicines or other medicines in your checked luggage. Luggage gets lost.

I recall one conversation I had with a pharmacist in Greece while trying to get medication for a vacationing patient who had lost her luggage. Although his English was better than my completely non-existent Greek, it still wasn't very good. Some of the medicines had different names in Greece -- and my Massachusetts medical license didn't give me legal status to prescribe drugs in Greece. It took nearly an hour to make sure my patient was getting the right medicines -- but at least we were able to get her what she needed. She learned a valuable lesson: Keep your medications with you, not in your checked luggage, when you travel.

(Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. To send questions, go to, or write: Ask Doctor K, 10 Shattuck St., Second Floor, Boston, MA 02115.)

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