8 Ways to Ease and Relieve Travel-Related Joint Pain


Travel is a meaningful and cherished hobby for many people, including those living with chronic joint pain. While living with rheumatoid arthritis for the last nineteen years, I’ve traveled to India, China, Europe, Central America, Canada, and around the United States.

After traveling by airplane, boat, car, train, foot, ferry, seaplane, kayak, and even “tuk-tuk” (aka rickshaw), I’ve gathered a number of tools and tips for preventing, reducing, and coping with travel-induced joint pain.

Prepare for Travel: Focus on Pain Prevention

A wise person once said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” With that in mind, I do everything I can to make sure my disease is under control possible before traveling.

This includes:

  1. Sticking to My Treatment Plan I stay up to date on my medications and overall treatment plan with my medical team. I asked those in my online communities to share their best tips, and Jenn T., 40, who lives with chronic pain, echoed the importance of staying on top of one’s treatment plan. She said that she finds it helpful to “use pain relief options earlier rather than later.”
  2. Making Smart Sleep, Meal, and Lifestyle Choices Pre-Trip My travel experience goes smoother if I consistently focus on my lifestyle interventions pre-travel. This includes prioritizing sleep, consistently exercising, making healthy nutrition choices, and staying on top of my stress management through therapy and mindfulness practices.
  3. Managing Stress Since travel can be inherently stressful, I use my stress management tools, which include daily mindfulness practices, breathing exercises, and formal therapy.
  4. Packing Strategically I personally love using a fanny pack as it keeps my hands free, and it appears I’m not alone in this preference. Fellow chronic pain warrior Kat P., 42, shared that she wears a fanny pack for “instant access for ID, phone, and basic meds.” I also use a lightweight travel backpack.
  5. Bringing My Go-To Ergo Gear I make sure to pack things like my floss pics, ergonomic toothbrush, easy-open shampoo and conditioner bottles, and more, so that I don’t have to deal with additional joint pain and strain from difficult to open containers on the road.
  6. Bringing My Own Hard-to-Find Items Kat mentioned that she brings her own disposable straws since many places no longer carry them. She also packs a neck pillow. I always pack some of my favorite gluten-free snacks as they can be hard to come by in certain regions.
  7. Planning for the Worst I always pack my medications in two separate places. (For example, in my carry on as well as checked luggage; or, once at my destination, in my day pack as well as back at the hotel.) I also research urgent care facilities and hospitals ahead of time and share those with my travel partners so I have a plan if I end up getting ill. I make sure my spouse or other travel partners have a copy of my “face sheet,” which is a two-page PDF document of my condensed medical history and most recent prescriptions (including generic names and doses).
  8. Always Looking for New Ideas I learned many of these best practices the hard way — through mistakes. Travel is an opportunity to change your perspective and discover new things; keep an open mind as you travel and keep your eyes peeled for new ways of doing things!

General Rules of the Road When Traveling

When I’m actually traveling, I keep a pain toolkit handy and continually remind myself to conserve energy.

Keep a Pain Toolkit Close at All Times

I pack a “pain toolkit” of my favorite tried and tested pain reduction methods, including: compression gloves, topical creams, pain medications, joint support braces, heat and cold packs, compression socks, and more.

For some, bringing a portable TENS unit (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) may also be necessary for daily pain relief. I make sure my pain toolbox is easily accessible throughout the entire trip. I usually put it in my lightweight travel backpack near my essential travel docs like my ID and license.

Kat recommends bringing a “self-heating disposable heating pad” and disposable cold packs to reduce her back pain.

Conserve My Energy

This one frustrates me because I want to “do it all,” but I truly have to prioritize rest breaks. I tend to be overly optimistic and also want to pack a lot into a short period of time to “make the most of the trip.”

However, if I rest, I not only prevent additional pain from overdoing it, I also am able to conserve my energy more efficiently so I can last the whole day.

It helps me to plan out a general itinerary in advance, and to plan for about 75 to 80 percent of what I can do on a “good day.” This allows me to have some wiggle room in case I’m more fatigued than usual or jet-lagged.

Jenn put it succinctly when she said she finds it helpful to “schedule and take time to rest,” and also “move around however you can, whenever you can.”

Kat shared that she also packs a package of shower wipes so that she can “stay fresh even if too tired to shower.”

Additionally, I use strategies that are specific to the method of travel, which you can find below.

Some of my best tips are specific to the method of transport.

Joint-Friendly Driving

Car travel poses some unique challenges. Here are tips that have helped me:

  • Ergonomic hand position if you’re the driver: While many of us were taught to keep our hands at “10 and 2 o’clock,” it’s actually more ergonomic and comfortable to keep your hands lower on the wheel for many with arthritis, closer to a position of 8 and 4 o’clock.
  • Use (extra) seat cushions for tailbone-pelvis and lumbar support.
  • Use cruise control to help prevent foot pain.
  • Take frequent rest breaks and stretch breaks.

Joint-Friendly Flying

  • Stay light: Choose lightweight luggage that’s easy to carry or pull. I find that suitcases with wide grips are especially helpful for sore hands.
  • Hydrate: I use an electrolyte powder that I can add to water, which makes my pack much lighter than if I had to carry a 16-ounce electrolyte drink.
  • Stand up once an hour and stretch out all your major joints (ankles, knees, hips, lower back, shoulders, wrists, and neck).
  • Use mobility aids if available, such as an airport wheelchair, walker, cane, or travel assistance as provided by your local airport. For example, my local airport (SeaTac in Seattle) has an “Accessible Transport” department which has basic information and instructs you to contact your individual airline ahead of time to arrange for accessible transport from within the airport.
  • Book your flight for the time that works best for your personal pain rhythms. For example, I tend to do better in the morning, but Kat says she “never takes the early flight” and does better when she is able to sleep-in prior to flying.

Joint-Friendly Travel Ground Rules — Once You’re There

  • Footwear: make sure to have the most supportive footwear you own in order to prevent and reduce foot pain — and to reduce risk of ankle sprain.
  • Bring your assistive devices and mobility aids. This might include a cane, walker, or wheelchair.
  • Delegate the heavy lifting to others when possible. (This is also true for activities like kayaking.)

How to Cope With Pain While Traveling

Most people who’ve traveled a lot learn to “expect the unexpected.” For better or worse, sometimes you do everything right and you still end up experiencing joint pain or a disease flare-up. In these moments of disappointment, I find it crucial to practice self-compassion and to focus on what I can do to cope in the moment.

Instead of focusing on what I “should” have done in the past to prevent this flare-up, how can I offer myself compassion and support now? Sometimes this simply means taking 10 slow deep breaths and reminding myself that “this too shall pass” or “I can do hard things.”

Focus on the Benefits of Travel

As stressful as travel can be (especially during a worldwide pandemic), seeing new places and visiting friends around the globe continues to be a valued hobby for many living with chronic pain. I hope that these tips help you with your upcoming travels!


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