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8 Tips for Traveling With Chronic Pain

All I’ve ever wanted was to see the world. My mother has a picture of me, when I was four, sitting in one of those big, flowered chairs of the 70s, engrossed in a National Geographic’s pictures of an unknown land. My grandfather, or Chief as I called him, was a merchant marine and would send me items from all over the world while I was growing up. I remember the wooden shoes from Holland I’d clop around in when I played dress up, with shiny beads of every color around my neck from New Orleans, where he docked when returning home from the sea. I credit him for igniting my curiosity about the world when I was young. I wanted to see it all. I looked at National Geographic pictures throughout my childhood and dreamt of being a National Geographic photographer. The thought of such exotic people, languages, and landscapes put my vivid imagination into overdrive.

For many years I dreamt of traveling the world, and when things were tough, I would daydream so deeply on occasion that someone would have to snap me out of it. All my friends traveled. My best friend went to Spain when in our 20s and another joined the Peace Corp and ended up in Bolivia, where he met the love of his life. I always let fear, and money, or lack thereof, get in the way. But in September of 2008 at 32 years of age, I got my passport. The intention was to save up and visit my married friends in Dublin, Ireland. I knew it might take a year or so, but I was determined to go.

However, in the fall of that year, I began to tire easily and to have intermittent pain everywhere. The pain would move around from my legs to my back, then my neck. I’d wake up terribly stiff. I went to many doctors and had my blood tested for thyroid disease, adrenaline issues, hormonal issues, and so on. Finally, on December 19, 2008, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I didn’t realize what this diagnosis would mean for my life, but I was resolute to continue to live my life. The illness, however, consumed me with pain and grief. It suppressed my ability to fight for quite some time.

Fibromyalgia is believed to be a neurological disorder. It is a condition that doesn’t allow the body to process pain like most people. It can create what fibro (short for fibromyalgia) patients call a “fibro flare” when the body swells and creates pain in different areas of the body, without warning, and in no certain area each time. Sleep and movement are the best ways to prevent a fibro flare. And continuous pain can cause quite a bit more fatigue than one might expect.

After three and a half years of learning how to adjust to living with fibro every day, grieving for the life I once had, and watching foreign films to escape to a country of my choosing just to feel as though I was there, I decided it was time to really do it. The timing was good with my work, and my friends that were in Dublin had since moved to Barcelona and were soon to move to Victoria, Canada. I used their moving deadline to motivate me.

So, I bought a ticket to visit them in Barcelona in mid-May 2012 for a few days and then I decided to head to Paris for six days on my own. Yes, I was terribly frightened about my strength and ability to cope abroad, but my desire to travel overruled that fear.

Barcelona was wonderful. My friends lived in a village in the mountains north of Barcelona called Caldes de Montbui. The little mountain town has one of the oldest Roman ruins in Europe, along with thermal baths believed to be curative. I went on a photography jaunt through the village on my third day there. The air was a perfect mix of cool and damp. The cloud cover was gray, just covering the mountain tops. I watched the farmers in the fields below, reliant on the stream that came down from the mountains. Sleep is important for someone with fibromyalgia, thus my surprise by my easy adjustment to the time difference. Movement also helps, and with the desire to explore, the pain in my legs was bearable. I guess it makes sense as I was so excited to see my dear friends and finally be in one of the places I’d always dreamed of. And adrenaline always temporarily eases pain.

According to an article in the Huffington Post earlier this summer by Suzy Strutner, lifestyle editor, “5 Ways Your Body Changes Before, During and After Travel,” travel is a gift to your body physiologically. More specifically, it can reduce the risk of a heart attack due to stress and can also improve your immune system and blood pressure.

After three days in Barcelona, I flew to Paris. I’d done a ton of research and found a wonderful B&B on the back side of the hill in Montmartre, Au Sourire de Montmartre (now located near the Eiffel Tower). The family that owned the B&B were of Moroccan descent but had grown up in Northern France, so the mix of French and Moroccan art was breathtaking. My room, on the first floor, was extremely cozy. It had boxed insets in the walls with light dimmers accentuating the Moroccan figurines in each, and prints by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec-fitting for the area of Paris where Moulin Rouge is located – and where Impressionists like Picasso, Monet and Renoir flourished during the Belle Époque (Beautiful era) period. My room also had a new small sink combined with a mini stove, an armoire, a bed that was so plush it was extremely difficult to get out of, and a shower designed as a Hamman! Oh, and the towel warmers! I was in heaven!

The next day around lunch time, I went to the Marais, in the Fourth Arrondissement, and formerly the Jewish Quarter. I sat at a table for two at a corner cafe, facing the Place de Vosges. I sipped on a glass of white wine and took in the sights and sounds. I watched as people walked by, imagining what the Marais was like during World War II. I was so happy to be in Paris, but as I walked to the Musee Carnavalet my lower back and legs began to ache.

It was now my fourth day in Europe. As I walked through each room of the museum, each an imitation of a different period in France which I found fascinating, the pain crept up my back and into my shoulders. My legs felt heavy and like they were on fire. It was time to get back to the B&B, which was several Metro stops away. I stepped outside the museum and it was pouring down rain. To get to the nearest metro stop, I would get soaked and didn’t feel like running, so I stepped into a Jewish market to grab something to fix when back at the B&B. I grabbed a couple of items: smoked salmon, baguettes, cream cheese, sparkling water and a little chocolate. The metro stop was directly across the street, and the rain had let up enough that I could get there without getting drenched.

The train was terribly crowded, but I found a seat after a stop or two, which eased some of the aches. Montmartre is in the 18th Arrondissement and is on the furthest edge of town, or what Parisians call the Peripherique, and therefore was the second to last stop. I must admit, the train ride was the scariest, and most painful, moment of the trip for me – but also the most empowering, as I realized I wasn’t cowering in the wake of the onset of terrible pain.

I knew when planning my trip that I needed to allow for a day or two of rest. It was never my goal when finally getting across the pond that I see and do everything. For me, it was gratifying enough to just be there, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells, meeting new people and seeing how the rest of the world lives. And so, the next day I did just that, I rested. I also reminded myself that while I was not leaving the B&B, I was still in a B&B in Paris! I opened the windows and let the sounds flow into my room with the light breeze, while I read a mystery that took place in Paris.

In this month’s special edition of Time, “Mindfulness: The New Science of Health and Happiness,” Moshe Bar, a neuroscientist, and director of the Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, says that our brains switch between exploratory and exploitative modes. When we travel, our brain is in exploratory mode, which means we are open to new experiences and cultures and have a desire to learn. It also engages our more creative side.

So, you see, traveling with chronic pain isn’t always easy, but it is so very worth it. For me, the experience of new places and seeing another part of the world is so invigorating and inspiring. I write, learn and am open to new experiences when I travel. I am more present in the moment, and less anxious about my future. This makes me feel centered and confident. An article titled, “You’re either an explorer, or you’re not. Which one are you?” in BBC Travel by Erin Block in 2015, describes why people are drawn to travel. It says that when exploring new places, the level of dopamine in the body increases and creates a sense of euphoria. Some risk takers push the boundaries to experience this, but not all have to go to extreme risks when traveling. As for me, since people with fibromyalgia typically have low levels of dopamine in their systems, it makes sense that traveling soothes my aches and pains.

Since my first trip to Europe, I have returned to Paris and been to Dublin and Galway. I’ve been to Doha, Qatar and London several times – not to mention many places in the US on several occasions like Dallas, New Orleans, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington D.C. The power of wanderlust is strong within me. So, strong it overtakes fear and pain. It also allows us to better, and more calmly, accept the imperfections of life, and the disappointment of being saddled with a chronic illness. The thrill of seeing a new place creates adrenaline and dopamine, which is an excellent cure for awful pain. The built-in necessity to be conscious of your body teaches more awareness of how we can let chronic illness overrun us when at home. It also taught me a lot about self-care and self-love. And that while chronic pain is part of me, it is not all of me, and I can still see the world… just with a little more care.

Here a few tips if you’re traveling with chronic pain or illness:

1. Get yourself some Biofreeze. They sell it on Amazon in four ounce bottles. You’ll have to transfer it to a three ounce bottle to take onto the plane, which you can find at any drugstore. I always have it with me. It may not take away the pain, but it eases it for long enough to help you get to where you’re going or switch your brain to something else, so you’re not as focused on the pain.

2. Take a bottle of water, a granola bar or a piece of fruit with you everywhere. It can add a bit of weight, but it helps to keep you hydrated, which can mitigate pain and fatigue later. The little bit of food can help as well. When you eat you get the blood and metabolism flowing, which can help to ease pain and inflammation.

3. Be sure that where you are staying has hot water. Wet heat is best for chronic pain. So, a hot shower, or a good soak in the tub, if possible, help to ease aches and pains and help you to sleep better.

4. Don’t over-schedule yourself. Take in the sights and sounds and relish where you are.

5. If taking immune-suppressants, ask your doctor before you leave if you can take less of them while you are away. This will help you fend off germs from the planes, trains and automobiles you may have to take to get to your destination.

6. Pay the bit of extra to take direct routes. This will decrease the amount of up and down on planes, transfers through large airports and trains stations, and decrease the energy level you must expend.

7. Only pack what you can comfortably carry. I know you’ve heard this before, but for those of us with chronic pain, this is extremely important. I try to take two pairs of shoes, three sets of pants, three blouses that can all be mix-matched. You’ll find once you get there that you’ll end up wearing only two outfits anyway.

8. Carry your medications in a day/night planner and take the most recent print outs that come with your prescriptions in your luggage. That way, if asked, you can show the print outs to customs, which describe the medications in detail. It will also allow you to easily speak to a pharmacist in another country, should the need arise.

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