What is it?
Chronic pain is defined as medically as any pain lasting more than twelve weeks. It is sometimes a result of another medical condition – usually classed as an invisible illness. The list of invisible illnesses goes on and on: Cluster Headaches, Lupus, Fibromyalgia, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Crohn’s, Celiac Disease, Chronic Fatigue, MS, Nerve Pain, Autoimmune Illnesses.
If you know someone who suffers from chronic pain or you have it yourself, this article is for you.
Why I’m talking about Chronic Pain.
I have Scoliosis. It’s a disorder which means that my spine curves abnormally. In my case, I have a double curve, one in my lower back and one in my upper, along with Kyphosis, or what is rather sexily known as a Dowagers Hump – quite simply, a humped upper back.
My Scoliosis was not diagnosed until my early twenties – which meant that rather than being able to receive treatment while my body was developing, it’s been monitored through my life.
In the summer of 2015, I started experiencing chronic pain as a result of my scoliosis. I was put on a combination of several painkillers, taking upwards of 30 tablets a day, had to quit work and started to use a walking cane.
The protocol in the UK, if the Cobb angle (the bend in the spine measurement) – is less than 20° then it is normally just monitored. My largest cob angle is 40 degrees, which according to NHS guidelines they would advise having surgery.
There are lots of difficulties associated with back surgery, as well as a long waiting list and recovery time for patients. The idea being on a large number of painkillers on a daily basis wasn’t appealing either.
I started focusing on yoga, pilates, good food and lots of sleep for recovery. I spent all my travel savings on a fantastic Physiotherapist who I visited at first weekly, then monthly. I’m proud to say that I have been off my painkillers since 2016. The whole process was extremely hard and even though I was well enough to work – I still experienced daily pain.
As I have been travelling my chronic back pain has increased. Sometimes its because I have been walking a lot that day. Or sitting for too long. Often there is no reason.
On my worst days, I get shooting pains down my legs. Last week my legs gave out and I fell, and now am sporting the scabby knees of a 12-year-old!
I am always looking for further solutions to help. I had read that custom-made insoles could help correct my walking style, which was putting added pressure on my back. Unfortunately, after seeing a consultant it appeared that my curvature seems to be actually getting worse.
I have made the difficult decision to also be fitted with a custom-made back brace called a gensingen brace. This should stop my curve worsening and helps me correct my posture. I also undertook an intense week of Physio teaching me a new 90-minute daily routine to help strengthen my back muscles. And I got the insoles!
How I travel with Chronic Pain.
Being Adventurous and having constant pain don’t go hand in hand.
I am a backpacker that isn’t allowed to wear a backpack.
I am an active person that sometimes can’t get out of bed.
I’m also determined that I won’t be defined by the things I can’t do. I love to travel and explore the world so I have simply adapted the rules to make them work for me.
1. Don’t put diesel in a petrol tank.
Travelling, budgeting and a healthy diet don’t always go hand in hand. But fueling your body to work best for you is so important. I no longer smoke and if I drink, I always find my back pain is worse the next day.
As well as trying to stick to a healthy diet and making sure I drink enough water, I also take supplements. Kalms, which is a herbal remedy which seems to relax my muscles and also a Vitamin D tablet (great for your bones).
This rule is common sense – we are what we eat and filling your body with crap will only make you feel like it.
2. Adapt your Kit.
Since being told I was no longer allowed to carry a heavy bag, I compensated by only packing a 45l carry-on. That, unfortunately, is no longer ideal, so I picked up a new eagle creek rolling duffel bag in Bangkok.
It’s lightweight and also has back straps for when the terrain is too bad for the wheels. It’s ideal that I don’t lift anything heavy, so this is more an option for whoever is helping me at the time!
For people with Chronic pain, carry heavy things can be hard work, so I travel light – the less I have the more to carry! Thinking carefully about how much to pack is an important step for those of us travelling with pain so I tend to wear lots of plain clothing, that can easily mix and match.
As far as actual kit is concerned, I carry individual heat patches, which I wear when my back is extremely bad to help with the pain. I have a yoga mat, straps, stool, bean bags (yes really!) and a lumbar pillow I use to perform my Physio.
While I am lucky that I have a travel partner most of the time to help me with carrying my kit, however, I acknowledge that is not always the case – so think wisely about how and what you pack. Pain management items are not a luxury, they are a necessity.
3. Ask for Help.
I recently travelled up to Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand on the train.. an easy trip you’d think. But I can’t lift my bag on and off the train.
I asked the train guard to help me with my bag, who was more then happy too. And when I arrived at my accommodation to find the key under a pot and two flights of stairs to my room, I simply asked the taxi driver if he could help me out.
I’ve noticed, even when language is a barrier, it is human nature to support and help when you can. Trying to push yourself, and your body is a surefire way to ruin your travels.
4. Treat Yourself.
I think the one thing I miss most about living at home is having a bath. However, life on the road turns out to be a life of showers. Any opportunity we have to spend in an Airbnb or hotel with a bath the first thing I do is get those taps running! There’s nothing like a bath to relax my back and help ease my pain. It usually costs a bit extra than the usual dorm rooms and showers, but it’s often well needed.
I also try and get a massage every few weeks. While some may see this as a luxury, my muscles are always overcompensating to try and ‘even’ me out – resulting in lots of knots and tension around my lower back and neck. Having a professional work this out is a really important part of managing my pain.
If you need some ideas on how to bring more comfort into your life – you can sign up for my free ten day ecourse on How to Be Hygge.
5. Have an Online Support Network.
As well as having Phil with me, who is a complete Superstar when it comes to helping me out – I also have a support network I can tap into. This doesn’t just have to mean family and friends – there are lots of online communities to support people with Chronic pain.
I am a member of several Facebook groups that I can turn to for support and advice when I feel I need to talk to someone that really understands what I am going through.
One of the main issues with my Chronic Pain is that people forget you have it – even your closest friends. Sometimes it’s hard to keep reminding those closest to you why you are so tired or unable to participate in things.
Building a support network online has meant that wherever I am in the world, I am able to get the encouragement I need.
When you suffer from any kind of pain, you just can’t do what everyone else can. I started using Sleepcycle, a free app which measures how well you sleep and advises how much sleep you need on average. I need around eight and a half hours a night, which may seem a lot to some people.
My body needs this to recover from the real hard work of dealing with daily pain. I also have learnt to try and focus on just doing a few things every day. If Phil and I have a full day walking around and sightseeing, I often spend the next day doing something a lot slower, or simply staying in while he goes out without me.
Learn what works for your body and learn to listen to it. Travel doesn’t have to be fast, hard work or jam-packed every day. Slow travel often allows you to experience things in more depth.
As important as it is to rest, it’s just as important to keep moving. Keeping mobile makes sure that your body doesn’t seize up.
While I am not at extreme athlete level, I do like to keep active. As well as my physio, I always try and walk as often as I can, and love to swim.
Whatever activities you enjoy, try and fit them into travelling to ensure that your pain doesn’t overrule your adventures.
8. Don’t be afraid to try new things.
While my pain may seem to be limiting to some people, I try not to let it take over when it comes to making travel decisions. I treat it as a consideration, rather than a barrier to allowing me to do new things.
If I want to climb that mountain, I’ll climb it. I’ll follow all my rules, take care of myself, and if the stars align then up I will go.
The most wonderful thing about travel is the opportunities that it brings. Cancellations can bring new and exciting plans. If my pain is bad and plans have to change then that’s fine too.
My Chronic pain affects my life on a daily basis and often limits my ability to do things. But, that’s no reason to not adapt and evolve the way in which I travel.
I am hardly the poster child for those suffering from the same. But I do want to show that while chronic pain can barriers to how you travel, doesn’t mean that you can’t.
If you have any travel tips for those with Chronic Pain please leave a comment below!
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Also published on Medium.