Dr Handford's Tips for travelling with Arthritis
There a lots of different types of arthritis, the most common ones being osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. The word ‘arthritis’ itself means inflammation in the joints, and all the different kinds of arthritis cause similar symptoms of stiffness, pain, and restriction of movement.
These symptoms can vary from day to day, and even sometimes within the day itself. It is worth thinking about the types of things that trigger your joint pains, and trying to minimise those factors in the run up to your holiday and whilst you are away.
Choosing your destination:
There is some evidence that cold, wet weather makes joint inflammation worse and can cause more pain and stiffness. You may have noticed that your symptoms are worse before it rains, or in the winter. Warm, dry weather can ease the stiffness in the joints for some people.
This is thought to be due to the air pressure around us, which changes depending on the weather. Higher atmospheric pressure can sometimes trigger pain. However, there is also some evidence that a drop in atmospheric pressure (like before it is going to rain) can also cause increased joint inflammation.
All in all, the jury is out. However, what matters is how your joints respond to changes in weather. Consider the climate in your chosen destination, and the time of year you are planning to travel. Some destinations may be drier or more humid at different times of year, and this could make a big difference to your comfort whilst away.
Where to stay:
Consider how accessible you may need your accommodation to be. It is worth checking that there is a lift if you are not going to reliably manage the stairs. If you rely on a wheelchair, contact the accommodation directly to ensure that you will be able to get around comfortably. Some tour operators specialise in accessible holiday destinations, and it may be worth using one for your peace of mind.
Also think about what facilities you may need. If you use ice packs for sore joints, make sure there is a fridge or freezer available. Heat packs and wheat bags are also very useful, but you will need a microwave to warm them up. If you have medication that needs to be stored in the fridge, make sure that will be possible.
Regular exercise is also useful for many people with arthritis. Non weight-bearing activities like swimming are ideal, so choose somewhere with a heated pool which you can easily get in and out of. Lots of resorts offer aqua exercise sessions or yoga and relaxation classes, which could be a lovely way to help manage your symptoms.
If you like going out for meals, don’t choose the accommodation at the bottom of the hill when all the restaurants are at the top! Your symptoms may vary from week to week, and if you are unable to anticipate how things might be when you are away, try to make things as easy as possible for yourself. Your hotel may offer a shuttle bus service to local attractions – this could make all the difference to your ability to enjoy your holiday.
If you are concerned about getting about whilst away, consider renting a wheelchair in advance to take with you, just in case. Just having that option could be enough to give you peace of mind. Organisations like Age Concern should be able to help.
Plan ahead! Allow yourself plenty of time to get to the airport, or if you are embarking on a long drive, schedule plenty of rest stops. Keeping your joints moving is very important to reduce stiffness.
When you arrive at the airport, make yourself known to the airline check in staff, and request assistance if you need it. This may involve reduced queueing time and help getting to the gate, as well as priority boarding and disembarking the aircraft. When you book your flights, ensure you choose a seat which allows enough space for you to be comfortable.
Make sure you have enough medication with you to last the duration of your trip, ideally with a few days extra in case of unforeseen delays. If you take steroids regularly for your arthritis it is vital you do not suddenly stop taking them, so make sure you won’t run out.
Some medication for arthritis is injectable, so you will need to take needles with you. Ask your GP for a note authorising this to avoid any problems at the airport.
Consider what kind of medication works well for you if you get a flare up of pain. Even if you haven’t needed pain killers for some time, it is best to have some with you just in case.
Some medication used for arthritis can cause the skin to become very sensitive to sunlight. If you are not sure whether this is the case for you, check with your GP or hospital specialist. Make sure you use a high factor sun cream, and avoid too much sun exposure when the sun is at its hottest.
On the other hand, you may find that you need LESS pain relief when you are away! Warm weather and swimming may do the job for you, instead of tablets. Also, some skin rashes associated with arthritis can improve when exposed to sunlight, or to sea water. However, you still need to use a high factor sun cream to prevent sun damage.
Arthritis can be a very limiting and painful condition, and is often unpredictable. Try your best to anticipate problems and put plans in place to minimise the effect these may have on your trip.
About Dr Ruth Handford
Dr Ruth Handford is a GP with over 10 years' experience of working in both hospital and primary care. She is particularly interested in caring for the elderly in the community, child health, and family planning. Ruth lives and works in a rural community, and is kept very busy by her job and young family.
Important Information: These travel tips are intended to provide general information to travellers with arthritis and do not replace a visit to your doctor or practice nurse. If you are planning a holiday you should consult your doctor to ensure that you are fit to travel and discuss any specific health requirements you may have
Travel Insurance for Arthritis
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office recommend that you have travel insurance in place every time you travel abroad. Make sure that your insurers are aware that you suffer from arthritis and ensure that your travel insurance covers your arthritis as well any other medical conditions you may have.