Tips for travelling with Sciatica
Sciatica is a term used to describe pain coming from the sciatic nerve. This is a large nerve which travels from the lower spinal cord down in to the legs. If this nerve gets trapped or irritated or inflamed, it can send pains up and down its length, causing, in some cases, severe pain.
Often there is no particular cause that can be found for the episode of sciatica. Sometimes symptoms follow a slipped disc, or some kind of trauma to the lower back, for example from a fall. Muscle spasm in the lower back is a very common cause, and lots of people experience this from time to time.
If you have had sciatica in the past, you may be more likely to experience a flare up in the future.
Choosing your destination
Some people with sciatica may notice that the skin on their legs is especially sensitive to temperature when their condition is flaring up. There is also evidence that cold, wet weather can cause stiffness in the joints – including the lower back. On the contrary, warm, dry weather can ease nerve and back pain for some people.
What matters is how your symptoms respond to changes in the 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. Sometimes a flare up of sciatica can make lifting the leg very painful and difficult. 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 pain relief, 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 sciatica. 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.
schedule plenty of rest stops. Because of the route the sciatic nerve takes in the pelvis, it usually causes more pain when the hip is in a flexed position, and is more comfortable when the leg is straight. Hence, make sure you are able to regularly stand or lay down during your journey. Being able to recline your chair on an aircraft, or stick your legs out straight in front of you, may make all the difference to your comfort. So, when you book your flights, ensure you choose a seat which allows enough space for you to be comfortable.
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. .
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. Some medication used for the treatment of sciatica is restricted in some countries (such as codeine, dihydrocodeine, and gabapentin). Ask your GP for a note confirming that you are prescribed this medication 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.
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.
Arm yourself with the best chance at a pain free holiday with adequate medication, suitable journey planning, and some simple physiotherapy exercises that can help sciatica. These are easily found on the internet, and can make a big difference to how severe your sciatica symptoms are and how long they last.
Always consult your own doctor before travelling
These travel tips are intended to provide general information to those travelling with medical conditions. They do not replace a visit to your doctor . 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.
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.
Travel Insurance for Medical Conditions
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 have existing medical conditions and ensure that your travel insurance provides cover for them.