Retirement should be all about doing what you want to do, right? For many of us, that means traveling! Unfortunately, as we get older, sometimes our bodies don’t want to cooperate with the plans our brains have made. What to do? Don’t be too quick to cancel your plans! Depending on your particular condition, accommodations can be made to help with your comfort while you’re out exploring the world.
After having a three-level fusion in my lower back in January, I naively thought I would be “good to go” for a five-day trip to visit my son in August. I was still bitter about missing the trip to Spain to visit our daughter, getting left behind by my husband to recuperate in the Midwest chill. Now that I had been cleared for travel by my surgeon, I was not about to miss out again!
For those of you new to the spinal fusion game, it’s no joke. It’s different for everyone, but in my case, sitting is the most difficult thing. Standing, walking, and lying are much easier on my back. Though nothing is off limits, my back does better on a two-hour flight than it does on a six-hour road trip.
With a surgery like this, there are many things to consider. Since I wanted to keep my sitting time to a minimum, my priority was to get a direct flight of the shortest duration possible with no connections. As a frugal gal, I’ve never considered flying first class — I mean, what am I, fancy? After my surgery, my 6 foot 7 inch husband introduced me to Delta’s Comfort Plus, which gave us both additional wiggle room. I recommend this upgrade if it’s doable for you! Even if you can’t get an upgrade, try to grab the aisle seat, as it will enable you to get up and walk around more than if you are sitting next to the window.
I didn’t need any special accommodations for my flight, but there is plenty of assistance available at the airport. Need a wheelchair? Easy, peasy! Choose the elevator, escalator, or moving walkway if the walking gets to be too much. Some airports are enormous!
Besides these travel hacks, there are many strategies to use once you arrive at your final destination.
1. Consult With Professionals Before Traveling
As I’m six months post-op, I have had several recent appointments with my surgeon. When I mentioned the upcoming trip, he suggested taking a short course of steroids to help me with the extra sitting and different sleeping situation. I appreciated his insight, and the steroids were indeed effective! What suggestions might your doctor have?
Besides your physician, another expert to consult is a physical therapist. Your physical therapy provider knows tips and tricks for keeping you comfortable in potentially uncomfortable situations, like long plane rides or car trips. In addition to heat and ice wraps and pain relievers, your physical therapist might suggest bringing additional equipment like exercise bands or fascia balls to help with pain and discomfort. He or she might also suggest what not to do — which could be just as helpful. It’s a great idea to check with a qualified expert!
2. Consider Two Beds Rather Than One
Whether on vacation or at home, sleep should be a top priority. When I don’t sleep well, I pay for it (and so does everyone around me)! I knew I would be wiggling around trying to get comfortable and didn’t want to bother my husband. While we weren’t able to get two beds and ended up with one Queen, I’ll continue to request two beds going forward. I don’t need the added pressure of trying to be quiet while in pursuit of a good night’s sleep.
3. Make The Drug Store Your First Stop
With travel restrictions, you may not be able to pack certain essentials. Fortunately, there is a Walgreens, CVS, or Target on seemingly every corner. Do yourself a favor and stop at the drugstore on your way to the hotel. You don’t want to be without your essentials when it’s time to hit the sack! Besides your mousse and deodorant, you can grab a heat or ice pack, icy hot patch, pain reliever cream, heating pad, and whatever else to keep you comfortable for sleeping and have you energized for your trip.
4. All The Pillows
The name of the game is comfort, so begin your journey with a pillow. Grab your favorite travel pillow (invaluable for neck pain) before boarding the plane or getting in the car. A lumbar support pillow can also be a game changer for travel. It’s important to be prepared for anything — who knows how long your plane might be sitting on the tarmac? Nobody can predict traffic, and you’ll be grateful for your lumbar support when you’re inching along the turnpike.
Don’t forget about pillows for the room! When we stayed at the Westin in Washington, DC, they were only too happy to provide us with four additional pillows for our bed. After a simple phone call, the pillows arrived within minutes. Let me tell you, those pillows made ALL the difference! My physical therapist showed me how to make myself sort of a ‘nest’ for maximum comfort, and these pillows were a Godsend.
5. Get Moving, But Listen To Your Body
“Take a break!” That’s what many people will tell you when you talk about your chronic pain, especially when traveling. Turns out that resting is often the worst thing you can do. Stiffness sets in, soreness takes over, and by the time you get moving again, you’re in worse shape than you were when you started.
Yes, we love to travel — but we must remember moderation. When my phone registered nearly eighteen thousand steps by 2 p.m. one day, I knew I needed to rest. It’s ideal to rest before your body is crying out in pain. This way, you can take an hour or two off, then be energized for round two later. If you try to push through the pain, you might find yourself out of commission entirely for the next day.
The trick is to keep your pain under a particular threshold. This threshold is for you to decide, of course. Maybe it’s a particular number of steps, miles, or hours on your feet. Whatever you choose, make a deal with yourself to sit or lie down for a bit at this point to regroup.
Another thing to remember when it comes to movement is the importance of stretching. Taking time to do your stretching and/or physical therapy exercises at the hotel before setting out for the day will benefit you in the long run. These stretches can likewise come in handy at the end of a long day of walking, or even while waiting for the subway.
Look At The Big Picture
Travel is all about experiences and memories. Don’t go in with the mindset “this is the only time I’ll ever be in Greece — I must do everything.” Even if that is the truth, it won’t make your trip any more enjoyable while you’re killing yourself trying to sample every Moussaka in Santorini. Be present, pace yourself, and accept your body for what it can do right now. Most important of all, enjoy your trip!
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