Evade The Pain: Advice For Traveling With Rheumatoid Arthritis

Patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can have chronic joint pain throughout the day. This can be especially troubling while traveling. Fortunately, specialists have provided advice to handle traveling. Bringing disposable heating pads, wearing the right shoes, and even sitting in certain positions can alleviate pain. If you’re a traveler, read these tips for handling rheumatoid arthritis symptoms.

Do A Brief Workout Before Getting On The Plane

A woman practices yoga in her kitchen.
Kate Green/Getty Images
Kate Green/Getty Images

Sitting for long periods can worsen rheumatoid arthritis. According to Ergo Impact, sitting shortens and tightens muscles. This increases stress on the joints, which is why RA patients might feel more pain while on a plane.

Before you board, do a quick 30-minute workout. It does not have to be strenuous. According to a 2019 study, yoga reduces inflammation and aching in RA patients. Stretching for 30 minutes will loosen your muscles and prevent some pain on the plane.

While Sitting, Change Your Position Every 30 Seconds

A designer lounges in a plane seat while writing.
Susan Wood/Getty Images
Susan Wood/Getty Images

If your flight or drive is long, practice the 30-30 rule. Marvin Smith, a physical therapist for Oregon Health & State University, recommends it for RA patients. If you sit in one position for 30 minutes, rotate your hips and spine in the opposite direction. Hold that for 30 seconds.

For example, if you are slouched, sit tall and hold your shoulders back for 30 seconds. This will flex your muscles and reduce pain. Also, try to get up and use the restroom every hour for more movement.

For Road Trips, Plan For Pain

A person drives down a snowy road.
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Roberto Nickson/Unsplash

According to a 2004 study in Rheumatology, RA patients tend to have difficulty driving. If you are going on a road trip, make things easier on yourself. Position your car’s mirrors and seat so that you barely have to move your neck. Bring a buddy to swap places when you feel pain.

Rheumatologist Vinicius Domingues recommends storing medications in the car to take periodically. He also suggests supporting your lower back with a pillow or rolled-up towel. If you have heated seats, those might help.

Pack Disposable Hand Warmers

A man holds a bag filled with toiletries and disposable hand warmers.
Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Disposable hand and foot warmers are designed to heat up a person’s skin in the cold. However, you can use them for rheumatoid arthritis. Heat therapy can briefly assuage muscle and joint aches. In 2000, research in Cochrane concluded that heat therapy can lower inflammation and swelling, easing the pain.

Carry hand or feet warmers with you while flying, driving, or walking around. According to Harvard Health Publishing, moist heat penetrates the skin more than dry heat. Soaking a washcloth in hot water can also make a heating pad in a pinch.

Protect Yourself From The Sun

Bottles of sunscreen sit on a towel that a man lies on to sunbathe.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

According to the Arthritis Foundation, RA patients are more sensitive to sunlight. The same autoimmune disorder that attacks the joints makes people prone to sun sensitivity. Plus, some arthritis medications make people heat-sensitive.

If you will be sunbathing, hiking, or walking around, safeguard your skin. Apply a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or above, says the American Academy of Dermatology. Reapply it every two hours. Also, consider wearing a hat while walking or bring an umbrella to the beach.

…But Do Not Avoid The Sun

Two women sit underneath the shade of a tree in Hyde Park, London.
Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Although rheumatoid arthritis patients are sensitive to sunlight, they also need it. According to the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, vitamin D deficiency is common among RA patients. The less vitamin D you have, the more pain you will experience, says a 2020 study.

Getting 15 minutes of sun daily should prevent vitamin D deficiency. But you can also get this vitamin through your diet by eating egg yolks, salmon, sardines, and dairy products.

Lighten Your Load

A woman wearing a yellow backpack walks around a village in the mountains.
Bryan Dijkhuizen/Unsplash
Bryan Dijkhuizen/Unsplash

Carrying around heavy luggage or handbags will make your arthritis worse. Although you can roll luggage, you should reduce the weight of carry-on bags. “Carrying around an extra 10 to 15 pounds can put a lot of stress on the joints,” says physical therapist Alan Snyder.

If you are going sightseeing, only pack the essentials. Bring a backpack with two straps; putting weight on one shoulder will twist your spine. And if you need help carrying luggage, ask an airport employee.

Wear A Supportive Pair Of Shoes

An athlete ties his running shoes.
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Travel requires a lot of walking, and for that, you need the right pair of shoes. According to the Arthritis Foundation, the wrong pair of shoes can hurt your feet, ankles, knees, hips, and back. “Remember, if a shoe hurts, it’s damaging your foot,” explains orthopedic surgeon Carol Frey.

Dr. Alison Garten, vice president of the American Association of Women Podiatrists, recommends a low-heeled shoe with a thick, rubber sole. Make sure that your toes have room, and get enough support. When in doubt, ask your doctor or orthopedist.

Different Weather Means Different Symptoms

A woman walks through an alleyway in Japan with an umbrella.

Rheumatoid arthritis symptoms can change with the weather. In 2007, researchers found that dropping the temperature by ten degrees results in higher arthritis pain. Another study in 2014 noted that higher humidity can increase symptoms.

“Many RA patients have flares when the weather turns cold and damp,” says pain management specialist Moshe Lewis. The drop in air pressure causes more muscle swelling. To prevent this, bundle up during cold weather, and drink plenty of fluids if you will be in humidity.

You Can–And Should–Go Swimming

A woman raises her hands above the water as she swims in the ocean during sunset.
David Ramos/Getty Images
David Ramos/Getty Images

Some people might think that swimming worsens arthritis symptoms. But researchers have found the opposite. Because of the buoyancy, water can lift your joints and relieve your muscles, says the Arthritis Foundation.

Swimming can also improve your condition. In the American Journal of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, researchers recorded RA patients who swam three times a week. After 16 weeks, they had less pain and better joint function. While you do not have to swim every day, consider walking in the water if you are by the beach.

Book The Ideal Plane Seat

An airplane passenger sits on an aisle seat.

If you are worried about the flight, book an ideal plane seat. For instance, grabbing the aisle seat will allow you to get up as many times as you wish. You can also use the aisle space to stretch occasionally.

Also, some airlines allow you to pay for more legroom. Search for a “Main Cabin Extra” deal with your airline, and you can score two to three inches more legroom. You can also research which airlines have the most legroom.

If You’re Renting A Car, Ask For Arthritis Packages

A customer receives car keys for a rented car in Saudi Arabia.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Did you know that some rental companies offer special cars for RA patients? For instance, Avis Rent-A-Car offers swivel seats and spinner knobs. These might make control less painful for RA patients on a road trip.

According to the Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality, arthritis-friendly rental companies exist throughout Europe, China, and many other countries. Talk to your doctor about options. They might also recommend certain makes and models of cars that will make your trip easier.

Try Not To Walk Too Much

A tired man sits on a bench on a pier.
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BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Although travel requires a lot of walking, try not to overdo it. Arthritis Health recommends walking in 30-minute increments, with breaks in between. Too much physical activity can strain your joints, creating more inflammation and swelling.

That said, walking can also help rheumatoid arthritis. In 2006, research in Clinical Interventions of Aging found that consistent walking for around six weeks relieved pain and made RA patients less depressed. However, you should walk at your own pace and take breaks when you need to.

If Your Joints Ache, Grab A Bag Of Ice

A woman places an ice pack on her knee.
BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images
BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images

When your joints start to ache, grab a bag of ice. Cold therapy can be just as effective as heat therapy. According to Arthritis-Health, cold lowers swelling in the joints, which can alleviate the pain during a flare-up.

If you’re out, ask a flight attendant or waiter for a bag of ice. Apply it in ten to 15-minute sessions, with a protective layer in between the ice and the skin, such as a towel. Keep a bag of ice in your hotel room or Airbnb.

Exercise While Sitting

During a long flight or drive, you can perform some light exercises to prevent your joints from tightening. Steven Stuchin, the director of orthopedic surgery at NYU Hospital, recommends knee lifts. Lifting your knees can strengthen them and prevent knee pain, he says. You can also put a bag on them for extra weight.

To flex your hamstrings, keep your heels on the ground and pull up your toes for ten seconds. This should stretch your legs and relieve pain during a long flight.

Plan Plenty Of Downtime

Two women relax in lounge chairs outside.
Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Although you’re probably excited to see all the sights, do not overexert yourself. RA patients need plenty of rest along with daily exercise. Occupational therapist Jane McCabe says that, if you overload your plans, your arthritis symptoms will flair up.

Find a balance between exercise and rest. In 2018, a study in Arthritis Research & Therapy found that pain sensitivity increases when people are at rest. While relaxing, take care of yourself, take medications if needed, and manage any potential pain.

Bring Appropriate Medications

A woman packs medications from her restroom's medicine cabinet.
Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

According to Arthritis Health, there are five types of RA medications: NSAIDs, steroids, DMARDs, biologics, and JAK inhibitors. Depending on your pain level and symptoms, your RA could prescribe these to take on your trip. Talk to your doctor before you leave.

If you bring RA medications, print a copy of your prescription. If you run out, you will have a backup while traveling. Some countries have a different selection of medications than the U.S., so you should keep your prescription.

If You’re Going Hiking, Follow These Tips

A man stops during a hike to view a lake.
Sébastien Goldberg/Unsplash
Sébastien Goldberg/Unsplash

Hiking is great for rheumatoid arthritis, as it strengthens the joints and lowers chronic pain. However, Dr. Jennifer Kawi, an associate professor of nursing, has some tips to lower the pain afterward–especially if you don’t usually hike.

First, hike early in the morning. There will be fewer people and less sunlight, which gives you plenty of room to rest in the shade. If you have chronic pain, avoid hills and ambitious trails. Work up to long hikes over time.

Beware Of Higher Elevations

A woman hikes on a trail along mountains.
Kalen Emsley/Pixabay
Kalen Emsley/Pixabay

Barometric pressure, better known as atmospheric pressure, changes at higher and lower altitudes. If you are traveling to a different altitude, your symptoms might change. Some people report that their RA symptoms become worse at higher altitudes, according to NYC Pain Specialists.

Sometimes, the extra pressure increases inflammation in arthritis. However, a 2014 study in PLoS ONE found the opposite–higher altitudes lowered inflammation. The association is not quite clear. But either way, you might want to prepare for a little more pain than usual, just in case.

Try To Eat Well

A couple eats at a restaurant in Milan, Italy.
In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images
In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images

Although traveling is often part of a vacation, you might not want to gorge on sweets and fatty foods. Gaining weight will put extra pressure on your joints. According to a study in The International Journal of Clinical Rheumatology, overweight and obese people tend to have more painful arthritis symptoms.

Versus Arthritis recommends eating a balanced diet while traveling. Try to include vegetables, fruits, starches, dairy or dairy alternatives, and protein in every meal. With extra walking, you might even lose weight on your vacation!

Never Underestimate Baths And Showers

Full bathtub with brass tap fittings with bedroom beyond
Jumping Rocks/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Jumping Rocks/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

If you can, make sure that your lodging has a bathtub. Soaking in a bath not only supplies heat therapy, but it also lifts your joints and allows them to rest. Harvard Health Publishing says that baths with jets can mimic water massage therapy used by professionals.

If you cannot get a bathtub, don’t fret. A 15 to 20-minute shower can also alleviate pain. In 2011, a Scandinavian study discovered that morning showers can prevent RA pain later in the day.

Take An Occasional Cold Shower

Water falls from a shower head.

While warm showers can soothe arthritis pain, so can cold showers. Cold water can reduce inflammation and swelling. In 2017, Scandinavian scientists reported that “a whole-body cold mist treatment” can help people with chronic arthritis inflammation.

When biochemist Werner Siems tested cold water therapy on rheumatoid arthritis, he had patients take three-minute showers. That was enough to relieve oxidative stress in their joints. If heat therapy does not assuage your joint pain, try cold water instead.

Don’t Overdo Happy Hour

Four empty wine glasses stand in a row on a dinner table.
David Silverman/Getty Images
David Silverman/Getty Images

If you plan to drink while traveling, don’t overdo it. Alcohol can increase inflammation, which makes arthritis symptoms worse. In 2014, Brigham and Women’s Hospital conducted a study on nurses with RA. When nurses drank excessively, their arthritis symptoms became worse.

On the bright side, moderate drinking can help you. That same study found that moderate drinking decreases inflammation in the joints. If you have an occasional drink with dinner, you should feel fine.

Stretch Before You Sightsee

A woman practices yoga indoors with her dog.
CHRISTINA ASSI/AFP via Getty Images)=

Before you go sightseeing, stretch! Stretching prepares your muscles for activity, which will alleviate pain later on. Orthopedic surgeon Philip Conwisar recommends stretching first thing in the morning. Aim to flex your back, hips, arms, thighs, and calves, he says.

Just a few minutes of stretching can make a noticeable difference. The University of Michigan recommends holding each stretch for 15 to 30 seconds. If you flex all of the muscles mentioned above, that is only two and a half minutes.

Warn Security About Any Liquid Medications

A TSA member searches through a passenger's luggage.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Lorie Dankers, a spokesperson for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), explains that liquids must be under 3.4 ounces. If you have medications or other liquids above that amount, tell a Transportation Security Officer (TSO).

A TSO will accommodate people with health conditions that might influence screenings. Also, bring a doctor’s note and extra copies of the prescriptions. They will help the screening go much faster, and if you lose your medication, you can refill the prescription on the trip.

To Lower Joint Pain, Drink Plenty Of Water

A man hands a water bottle to another person who reaches for it.

Did you know that dehydration increases joint pain? According to Orthopedics Associates, 70% to 80% of your joint cartilage is made of water. When water is depleted, your joints lose their cushions, which creates more pain.

While you are traveling, bring a water bottle. Focus on hydrating drinks while eating out. Ignore sodas and energy drinks, and replace them with tea, juices, milk, and other hydrating beverages. If you experience a pain flare, double-check whether you have had enough water.

Bring Tiny “Assistants” With You

A woman sleeps with a pillow under her neck while sitting on a plane.
Bacon Library/Pinterest
Bacon Library/Pinterest

The Arthritis Foundation recommends bringing “assistants” with you: objects that will make your trip more comfortable. It could be a small pillow for your neck or lower back, a cane, or steering wheel pad to increase grip.

For the plane, the Med Transport Center recommends bringing medications and heating packets. You can also bring a seat cushion or neck pillow. If you forgot, check the airport stores; many of them offer support items to make your flight more comfortable.

Ask Airport Officers For Help

A flight attendant helps an elderly passenger lift her carry-on bag into the compartment.
Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images
Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Never be afraid to ask for help. Airlines are legally required to offer aid to people with health conditions. You can ask for a wheelchair to limit standing time, or ask a TSO agent to carry your heavier bags.

If needed, you can also pre-board. The Air Carrier Access Act permits disabled passengers to board early; if you need to do so, talk to the gate agent. While on the plane, flight attendants can hand you pillows, blankets, and ice packs; they can also store your carry-on bag.

If Your Feet And Legs Hurt, Kick Your Feet Up

A woman sits on a couch with her feet on a table.

A lot of walking can make your feet and legs swell. If this happens, find a bench to put your feet up. CreakyJoints claims that raising your feet for ten minutes will reduce swelling. It will also give your feet a break from walking.

You can also stretch your Achilles tendon. Podiatric medicine doctor Dennis Frisch recommends reaching to touch your toes. Do not overdo it; if you cannot stretch, try wiggling your toes and flexing them instead.

Avoid Inflammatory Foods

Fried oysters and french fries are packaged on a pier.
Ross Land/Getty Images
Ross Land/Getty Images

If you want to feel better during your trip, avoid inflammatory foods. Sugar is one of the worst. In 2018, a study in Arthritis Care Research reported that drinking soda makes RA symptoms worse.

Medical News Today advises patients to avoid inflammatory fats. These are found in processed meats, fried foods, and salty foods. Arthritis patients already have high inflammation, so avoiding these foods should lower your symptoms. While traveling, carry healthy snacks such as nuts, fruit, or granola bars.