By Anne M. Smith, owner of Travel & Events Extraordinaire and a U.S. Pain ambassador
When I was first bombarded with multiple pain conditions nine years ago, I was completely overwhelmed, and there are still days when it tries to overtake me. As a travel agency owner and event manager, I have had to completely restructure my life, my business and, more importantly, the way I travel.
To understand the difficulties I face, you can think of my nervous system wiring as being totally rerouted. It is akin to a highway construction manager putting up detour signs for my nerves all throughout my body—they are confused with which exit to take. So, they have gone haywire, leaving central nervous sensitization in its path and my pain receptors are all on high alert. Couple that with referring pain and we have a map of tangled highways, streets, and roads going around in an endless cloverleaf exit ramp.
Just the other night, I asked my husband to calculate my average pain level from nine different sources of pain. It was determined that I constantly stay at a 6.9, all triggered by the simplest of things like writing, typing, sitting, standing, walking, rolling over, and sleeping.
With that in mind, when I travel, whether for work or pleasure, every decision from beginning to end is factored around my pain. I have to think about how I am going to get there, where I am going to stay, how will I get around, how far can I walk, how long can I stand, how long can I sit, and will I be a disruption to anyone around me if I need to get up and walk, etc.
If I am traveling by car, the immediately impacted body parts include my hands (carpal tunnel), elbows (cubital tunnel), shoulders (bilateral scoping surgeries), neck (anterior cervical disc fusion C3/C4), lumbar spine (L4/L5/S1 for degenerative disc disease), and bilateral knees from both being replaced (right one most recently in May of 2018). Earlier this month, I re-learned that about one hour is my maximum for gripping the steering wheel. Unfortunately, the drive to Philadelphia for a recent trip was two hours! The last hour was filled with electrical shooting pains from my hands to elbows and up to my arms. This triggered my neck, so that was also hurting.
Because I was driving, I was only able to take 800 mg of Tylenol. Upon entering my hotel room, I took my stronger pain meds and allowed the hot water of the shower to soothe my wrist, arms, shoulders and neck. I concluded with massaging the impacted areas until I had some relief.
It’s crucial when driving to known your limits. You should also be sure to have plenty of self-care and treatment options for once you arrive at your destination.
When I travel by air, I always request wheelchair service at the ticket counter. This saves my spinal column, knees and feet from having to stand in long lines at the ticket counter, security, and the boarding gate. I always sit in the front of the plane, close to the bathroom, also due to pain. As soon as I deplane, there is a wheelchair and attendant awaiting my arrival to be wheeled through oftentimes very huge airports in between gates or just to get to baggage claim. He or she earns my biggest tips! And I often use the baggage carts once my luggage is retrieved. Some airport terminals and gates are as far as the east is from the west. So whenever possible, I research in advance if they have the motorized transport vehicles and where to request them.
Even when you plan ahead, things can still go wrong.
Earlier this month, aboard the Harmony of the Seas cruise ship, where I was a guest speaker conducting training to 40 travel professionals, my ankles had swollen due to a new medication being introduced to my system right before I traveled.
(Note to self – “Self, wait until after you return from travel to try new medications!”)
This medication was supposed to help with the aforementioned electrical shooting pains. But then I felt like my second passion as a voice-over actress kicked in and I starred in my own medication commercial where I read aloud very fast that “this medication will help patients alleviate the zapping of misfiring nerves, but it could cause lower body extremity edema such as the swelling of your ankles the size of softball appendages, turn your calves into logs, and prevent you from wearing shoes. So much for sexy summer logs, I mean legs!!!” And cut…
(I write with a lot of humor otherwise the gravity of the amount of pain I deal with daily would be more overwhelming than most people could deal with.)
Suffice it to say, it was not the business trip I had envisioned. I had no water pills with me to remedy the edema. I had planned to stand and walk around the training room, but I was kind to my body and chose to sit and teach. I made it work.
Meanwhile, walking aboard the ship was actually quite painful because of its size. It significantly hindered my ability to be a travel agency owner scouting out activities and excursions for my clients to experience in the cruise port destinations we visited. I could only wear two pairs of the shoes out of the several pairs I brought with me.
Every trip I take, I feel like I learn new lessons about how to prepare. I learned three crucial things on this business trip: 1) never start new medications before I travel, 2) always bring comfortable shoes, and 3) always have water pills on hand in case of swelling.
I truly wish I could travel as much as my free-spirited soul would love to travel, but my body limits me. That said, it does not force me to stay at home and if I can only travel a couple of times a year, I will take that over never traveling again. I have one small suitcase for my pain needs and as long as my pain remedies are portable, I am always ready for an adventure…pain and all!
Anne Smith is a pain warrior, a term she learned during her training with U.S. Pain’s support group program, Pain Connection. From Pain Connection, she also learned perseverance and determination in overcoming the multiple pain conditions that she has. After a few years of restructuring her life to cope with pain, she found the strength to restart her travel and events planning business, Travel & Events Extraordinaire. Since then, with the help of family, friends, and organizations like the U.S. Pain Foundation, she has adapted her business to embrace her pain conditions, but also equipped herself to learn about accessible and medical travel to better assist her client’s unique travel needs.