Can I Travel With Chronic Pain?

by Gigi Griffis

If you’ve been reading awhile, you know that I’ve been traveling full-time for six years and I’ve faced some health challenges – both physical and mental – along the way.

When I’ve shared some of these challenges here on the blog, the response has been overwhelming.

Turns out, there are lots of people out there asking the question “can I travel with [insert health challenge here]?”

Can I travel with OCD? Can I travel with anxiety? Can I travel even though I need medication? What about chronic pain?

It’s these questions that inspire me to keep sharing about my own journey – and to ask friends to share theirs. Because all our stories are different. The ways we manage on the road are different.

But the beautiful thing is that we do manage. We do travel. We do step over the hurdles placed in our paths (sometimes triumphantly, sometimes gingerly) to try something new and different and challenging.

So, today I’d like to introduce you to my friend Chris who travels with chronic pain after a very scary accident. I’ve asked her to share about her travels, how she manages her pain on the road, and what she would like to say to those wondering if they could brave their own trip with chronic pain.

Tell us about yourself.

In 2001, I was hit by a car while crossing the street in a crosswalk. I flew 30 feet through the air and landed on the right side of my face. I had an ambulance ride to the hospital where they stitched up a laceration above my eye and sent me home.

After that, I started experiencing really intense pain through my face that would stop me in my tracks. My doctors are still kind of baffled because I don’t fit the exact criteria for trigeminal neuralgia (because the pain is bilateral versus unilateral) yet the laceration happened right in the trigeminal pathway and my symptoms exactly match TN.

Nerve pain is still a mystery to the medical profession but I’m hoping they will solve it in my lifetime. Ultimately, though, I walked away from something that could have killed me and I’m very grateful to be here. The shocks just remind me of that.

How does your chronic pain impact your life on a day-to-day basis?

Like anyone else who lives with chronic pain, I have good days and bad days. The pain is always there. There are times when it is burning or throbbing and others when there are lightening-like stabs of pain. It ranges from being a dull roar in the background that I can mostly ignore to times when it is so relentless that I can’t focus on anything else.

For quite some time after the accident, the pain was spiraling out of control. Now that I have found a doctor who is a facial pain specialist, I am incredibly fortunate that my situation is pretty well managed these days; there are so many people out there whose pain is so much worse than mine and my heart goes out to all of them.

I follow a daily routine of pain management. I have a prescription for anti-seizure medication (which works by disrupting the nerve signals in the brain). My teeth are hypersensitive due to the the nerves going haywire, so I stick to a diet of very soft foods so that chewing is kept to a minimum. The pain often causes my shoulder and jaw muscles to tense up (which makes everything worse) and I’ve found that applying a heat pack helps to alleviate this. I do physical therapy exercises as well. Anything that can take the pain down a notch or two makes a huge difference in getting through the day.

Does the chronic pain have an impact on where you choose to (or not to) travel?

So far, my chronic pain has not affected where I choose to go.

I do prefer big cities to small towns, so that may play a role, given that there are more healthcare options in larger places. That said, facial pain specialists are hard to find, so I still might be out of luck in a big city. Whenever I have a trip on the horizon, I research the doctors in that part of the world, so if I have a crisis, I’m not starting from scratch. The (as yet untested) plan has been to have my facial pain specialist take part in my care from afar, given that it so easy to send documents and images electronically these days. All of my doctors have encouraged me to go on my travels and have been very supportive.

Does it impact your travels in other ways? Have you found that anything in particular helps make travel smoother for you in relation to the chronic pain?

The bumpiness and jostling of flying or taking a train does increase the pain levels. I just count on travel days being bad days and know that this goes with the territory of getting from Point A to Point B. I do extra stretches, practice deep breathing techniques and have taken additional meds at the suggestion of my doctor. I still haven’t found a way to use a heat pack on a plane, so if anyone has any ideas, I’d love to hear them!

If we don’t have use of a kitchen while traveling, finding things that I can eat is a challenge. My partner usually tries my food before I eat it and he has become quite the expert in knowing if the texture is something I can handle. Chefs do like to add pizazz to their creations and unexpected crunchy landmines can wreck havoc.

Is there anything you wish people know about traveling with chronic pain? Anything friends or travel buddies can do to support you?

It’s okay to have fun even when I feel cruddy, and especially so when you have done everything you can to be supportive.

Any words of wisdom/comfort for those who have chronic pain and are considering traveling?

In order to find out how traveling (and particularly an airplane ride) would affect me before heading overseas, we took a short domestic trip first.

This was absolutely invaluable.

I learned so much about how to deal with being in pain outside of my familiar surroundings while still in my home country where I know the language and the healthcare system. Even though there were some unexpected surprises, I found that I could deal with them, which gave me the confidence to start planning a trip to Europe.

It does take courage to embark on a journey knowing that there is the possibility that it could all go to hell. I did have a horrendous flair up the last time that we were in Venice and as utterly miserable as I felt, I did not for one millisecond wish that I had stayed home instead.

I figure that if I’m going to be in pain anyway, I may as well do it while following my dreams rather than staying put out of fear. Travel heals the soul and the benefits far outweigh the risks.

For me, being able to travel and see the world is the epitome of living life to the fullest and making the most of the time that I have been given. This makes it makes it all sound easy, but it’s not. Every time that I leave for a trip, I am terrified that everything will go wrong and I will have only myself to blame. The cost of not going is far too high, though, and somehow, I forge ahead into the unknown.

And now, to you, dear readers: Do you have questions about traveling with chronic pain? Do you have an experience you’d like to share? I’d love to hear from you in the comments (or you can always message me directly if you prefer).

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Julie Mautner August 20, 2018 - 7:44 am

For heat when traveling, how about those things we used to put in our ski gloves when it was super cold?. I’m sure they’ve come along way since then… But I remember them as a nice source of heat that lasted at least a few hours.

Chris August 20, 2018 - 11:45 am

That is an absolutely fantastic idea! A quick google search shows that the TSA has approved these for carry on luggage as well. Thank you very much Julie! Being able to heat while on a plane (or bumpy train or bus) is going to make a HUGE difference.

Ali August 20, 2018 - 9:07 am

I can’t imagine what you must go through dealing with pain on a daily basis like that. I’m glad you’re not letting it stop you from traveling though! And yeah, like Julie said, what about those hand warmers that are air activated? They might be a little small, but maybe you could put a few next to each other in a thin sock or something.

Chris August 20, 2018 - 11:46 am

Thank you for your support Ali! It’s very kind of you and much appreciated.


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