Travel Tips for Chronic Pain Sufferers

Tip  #1:   Just don’t tavel.   🙁

No, just kidding that is a completly unacceptable outcome to me.  So, I have a bad back (read: chronic neuropathic daily pain condition resultant from four extremely nasty whiplash traumas). This is nothing new to anyone who reads my nonsennse, and neither is the tidbit that I love to travel… but I hate to transit.  
About four months ago, I found myself talking to an old friend who was off to Norway and Iceland on an amazing adventure, and she was going solo. We got to talking about what a cool trip she was taking and next thing you know – I’m going too! About that time, I booked a flight to London (where the cruise ship is set to depart this Saturday), and from the moment it was booked (all on QFF points), the nagging anxiety set in. I have not flown to London since 1997, the longest flights I have taken since my last car accident was to Vancouver (20hrs in transit) and to New Orleans (about 22hours)… and London, they say on the little ticketing bit on the website – is a definite 26 hours. Which of course with check in times, lay over for refuelling, and customs on each end, is guaranteed to be at least a 30hr or more transit. :/ 

Thinking I would vaguely attempt to exercise at least the pretense of having some modicum of control over the situation and in a attempt to ameliorate the impending painful flight, I decided to pay the extra $180 (the flight was free, bar taxes, so it seemed like a good idea at the time) to choose a bulkhead seat that would enable me to get up without disturbing fellow passengers in order to bend and stretch to my hearts content. It was a Qantas A380 and I haven’t flown on one of those before so I was choosing a seat without a great deal of personal reference and relying on the SeatGuru and the like for advice. The Qantas website is completely useless for this info – they will sell you the extra legroom and completely fail to mention any other issues with a seat – like it’s in a high traffic area near the galley or near the toilets so can be noisy or if it’s a seat that doesn’t recline… all the sort of shit you actually want to know when you are locking yourself into a teeny space for 30+ hours.

I thought I chose well, a window seat on the bulkhead wing with no one in front of me so I could get up and stretch and make sure I wasn’t too sedentary throughout the trip, and the most important bit – keep my lower back moving or at the very least in slightly altered postures so I wasn’t too jammed up at the other end.

WRONG. It had easy get out access alright, but being 5′ tall, I don’t need the extra leg room and that was all this seat was offering. I sat down and immediately began to panic. The arm rests did not move. Which meant, my (oxymoron alert) infertile childbearing hips, were being every so slightly squeezed on both sides and with no hope of being able to slightly shift weight left or right to alter lower back position for the duration. FUCK, FUCK, FUCKITY, FUCK!!! I felt myself pushing down tears and a sensation like I had a weight on my chest and was experiencing, what I only imagine, the beginnings of an anxiety attack feels like. As calmly as I could, I spoke to the cabin manager and explained my dilemma, why I had chosen the seat and how I had just discovered it was going to be hopelessly inappropriate for me.  

He said those dreaded words ‘It’s a completely full flight, ma’am’ (please don’t call me ma’am) but he was certain he could find someone tall who would love the additional legroom who would swap seats with me… but came back reporting that most of them wanted to stay with their party. Not surprising, but AHHH! I ended up talking to the lovely young couple beside me, a girl in her 20s with her heavily tattooed bearded hipster boyfriend to see if he was interested in taking my extra legroom seat so long as she didn’t mind me moving the arm rest out of the way. Well, Mr Tattooed Bearded Hipster has a bung knee, so was very happy to swap. Thank fuck for that!

So ‘upgraded’ seat useless, and found myself in a dreaded regular aisle seat across from the bulkhead (I hate being knocked by inconsiderate people walking past or worst still – the trolley). Our flight was unfortunately delayed in Melbourne… originally something vague about a ‘technical issue’, and then something a bit more detailed about a ‘mechanical repair’, and then something much more detailed, ‘we have had an oil filter indicator come on for one of our engines, so the mechanical engineers are replacing it now, and we will then be test running all the engines, during which time, we will require all passengers to put their seats in the upright position, stow their tray tables and take OFF their seatbelts’… hmmm, why does it sound like you are wanting the plane to think there are no people in these seats while you ‘test run up the engines’? Whatever… Dear Qantas Mechanical Engineering team – take your time, do all the things, as diligently as humanly possible. Unlike everyone else on the plane already complaining about delays, I shall watch a move, enjoy my free grog and wait until you lot are 110% comfortable and certain that the plane is ready for the 14 hour stint to Dubai!  

During this time, I happened to notice a young mother with a child probably 18-24 mths old nestled asleep on her lap. Dead to the world, the child looked quite peaceful and oblivious to the mechanical hiccoughs we were experiencing. Oh dear Lord, if she had but stayed that way. By the time we were in the air, (around 12:30am for our 10:55ppm departure), and a meal had been served after midnight and about the time they were dimming the lights and convincing everyone to go to sleep… the poor little tyke was wide awake and it was apparent that she had a very croupy sounding cough, with accompanying grizzling at being stuck in a seatbelt strapped to her increasingly stressing mother. Coughing and crying, coughing and indignant screaming… for the next few hours. I have no idea if the mother drugged the kid or what, but I sure as hell drugged myself to try to overcome it. I absolutely over did it on the medication… some Panadeine Forte as we boarded the plane, a few Valium, a couple of Stillnox, and some Digesic over the course of about two hours… and thankfully managed to get some sleep, though not as much as I might have liked – thanks to Little Miss Cough’n’Scream over the aisle.

I was eternally grateful that I had thrown my custom shooting earplugs in to my cabin bag at the last moment – I had taken them with me to Japan and China on my recent trip, but didn’t use them at all, so nearly left them behind this time. So I was extremely pleased that my ‘What the hell, they don’t take up much space’, attitude at the time of packing saved me from attempting to block out the couching and screaming with ill equipped Sennheiser noise blocking headphones instead. Or even worse… some freebie foam earplugs that will inevitably keep falling out!

 At some ungodly hour, the hosties started turning up the lights and preparing breakfast in an attempt to convince us that it was morning. Yes, let’s try and put us all on Dubai time, even though most of us are going on to various European cities?! And it was probably about this time that the persistent Little Miss Cough’n’Scream had finally settled back down out of sheer exhaustion (poor little thing – I do feel sorry for little ones when they fly, let alone when they are flying when obviously under the weather), but on being disturbed, promptly started up again.Dubai turn around was uneventful – though Dubai airport was just as bad as Melbourne for not offering anywhere for people to plug in and recharge devices. Seriously – if chaotic and disorganised domestic airports in bumfuck-no-where-China can get this right, how can a major transit hub like Dubai screw it up?

  We duly waited until the plane had been cleaned and refuelled and then promptly all marched back to our seats. Thankfully the same lovely people who were sitting with me previously were not disembarking in Dubai and I was able to avail myself of the same seat swap for the remaining 7 hours of the trip. I must have watched another 4 or 5 movies knowing that sleep was going to be useless, particularly seeing there was a large family now where Little Miss Cough’n’Scream had been and the half of them were in the bulkhead and the other half were seated behind me, and they were insisting on constantly swapping seats… which mean every time someone got in or out behind me, they were using my seat back for leverage and jerking me around. Not only that by one of them was putting their skanky naked feet up on the back of my arm rest. Urgh… fuck off. That’s not cool. I don’t need to look down and see someone’s feet by my elbow, occasionally pulling on my hair (yes, once again hair went up due to weird people being inconsiderate of the personal space of others… just like being back in China). Anyway, lots of being jerked around and whomever was behind me for most of the flight was punching their damn touchscreen so hard, I am surprised they didn’t poke a hole in it.  

All up not a great flight. I have some tips though that probably make the long haul flight a little more bearable for the chronic pain sufferer..

1) Tell the flight stewards that you are a chronic pain sufferer – there is space on your preferred airline profile to tell them you are lactose intolerant or gluten free, but no where to identify that you have any other issues, unless you require a wheelchair. It’s not always easy to advocate for yourself when you have an invisible illness, tell them you have problems as soon as you board. If you are in luck and your flight is half empty, you may find yourself moved to somewhere more comfortable where you can manage your physical symptoms with a bit more space.

2) Ensure you have all the medication you think you will need for the duration. I have only once tried to fly long haul without plenty of sedatives and pain killers – and let me assure you it was not pretty… there were tears, anxiety, staff not knowing what to do for me and very little they could offer other than a Panadol. Take your drugs. Take all your drugs.

3) Take a heat pack with you if you find these help mask or distract from your pain problems, but always ask the stewards if it is okay to plug them in under the seat. Some will give you the okay, but some will get leery of them because they plugs are primarily used for laptops and not devices with any thermal drawing capacity. They’re usually fine, but the staff don’t want to be responsible for a fire.

4) Find a tiny stool to pack with you to put your feet up a tiny bit. Years ago, before people started travelling with enormous cabin bags causing the need to put additional carryon under the seat in front of you, long haul planes were fitted out with a flip down foot rest even in the economy cabin. These have disappeared due to the space being used for additional baggage, but can be amazingly useful in providing comfort for your lower back. Even just elevating your feet off the floor about 5″ can alter your lower back position and reduce the pressure under your thighs for DVT and help keep the ankle swelling fun to a minimum. I have a teeny one I bought in China and it will be coming with me on every long haul flight from now on… It’s lightweight and cheap and made a huge difference. 

  5) Good earplugs are worth their weight in gold. There is very little worse than having to hear the goings on in the cabin when you are already trying to shut out the screaming pain that your body is throwing at you. I have some custom made earplugs and after this flight and that unhappy little croupy baby, I will never leave home without them again. There are plenty of good audiologists around the place who can take a mould of your ear and make some for you – or you tend to find these guys are gun/shooting shows or motorbike shows. Get some they’re great.

  6) Lesson learned – avoid the bulkhead… both the immoveable arm rests and the inevitable screaming children being seated close to the the bassinets provided there. Choose a seat in the quietest part of the plane, usually the back and also the area most likely to have empty seats if the flight is not full.

7) Roll up your airline blankie to use as a quick and dirty lumbar support. I don’t know for whom airline seats are designed to be most comfortable, but I have a sneaking suspicion it’s more like 6′ tall business men rather than 5′ tall chronic pain sufferers. The back support, if there is any, will inevitably be ill placed for someone not of ‘average height’ so get creative with ways to help you hold better posture for long periods of time.

8) Even when you are desperate to sleep, get up and move about the cabin as much as possible. Stand outside the galley or bathroom areas and do a full yoga workout if it is going to keep you from seizing up in pain. I have a handful of exercises that I get up and do about every hour – particularly things to stretch and limber up my lower back and my neck and shoulders. I have no idea how I would pull up without doing these and have no desire to find out just how bad it could get.

9) When offered water, take two. Being dehydrated on long haul flights is inevitable, so drink as much water as possible. Also, there is nothing worse than looking for flight stewards when everyone is supposed to be asleep, and you are hunting for water to take more drugs and there’s no one to be found… I think they all go off for a card game or something when the paxs are mostly all asleep. Sometime there are water filling stations near the galleys – but you just know every bastard has been refilling their used bottles with it after drinking directly from the same bottle. Yuk.

10) Where budget allows – upgrade if you think it will help. I would have flown premium economy. I could have flown premium economy and yes, I might have been more comfortable. But I just can’t get past the extra $2k or so – it is a lot of money towards my next trip. And besides, I know the nature of neuropathic pain means I am going to have a terrible painful time no matter where I sit, so it’s only a matter of perhaps being able to grab a bit more sleep. Sleep is good, it helps me ignore being in pain a bit easier… but is it $2k easier? Probably not. I’m going to be in stupid unbearable amounts of pain anyway, so I feel I can’t honestly justify the additional money. There’s no arriving feeling fresh as a daisy when you’re a pain sufferer anyway.

So that’s it – arrived in London, painful flight over. Got met at the airport by a dear friend who I was so grateful to see – being met and not having to immediately figure out a new transport system while you’re still out of your gourd on your last helping of Valium is invaluable. I am eternally grateful to Stephola for coming out to meet me. Then it was check into my Airbnb place and straight off to the pub to acclimate to local time lickety split!  

Tell me what you think