Osteoarthritis occurs at all ages
Osteoarthritis is something for the elderly, or so I thought until I turned 50. Before I was mostly healthy, occasionally I had a cold, but that was it. From there onwards it quickly went south. Pain in my shoulders, aches in my hands, hips, feet and knees. In short, wherever there is a joint in my body, it hurts. Some days more than others. It took several years before I made the connection between the various aches and pains. When finally the penny dropped, I went to see a doctor.
Pain in your joints
The rheumatologist concluded that I have osteoarthritis, an autoimmune disease. This is a condition of the joints where the cartilage in one or more joints is damaged and does not recover sufficiently.
The diagnosis was, on the one hand, a relief, as I finally knew what was wrong with me. But on the other hand, knowing that nothing could be done about it made me mildly unhappy. Of course, there are worse things in the world when it comes to health, but still. It has a significant impact on my most important pastime: travelling. Because no matter how great a trip is, there are always disadvantages associated with it. Even when you are still young and healthy. For instance, carrying lugging is never pleasant. Or those hours spent at airports, sitting in the car, sleeping in a too-tight aeroplane seat take their toll on the body. Other more pleasurable aspects of travelling such as wandering through a city or taking long hikes in the mountains, is increasingly difficult. Much to the frustration of my partner and myself.
Well, nothing to be done about it. Or is there?
1. Accept that you are in pain
First of all, this may sound simple, but it can make all the difference in the world: accept that you are in pain!
After my diagnosis, when I realised that my body would never be okay again, I felt quite frustrated for a while. Until I accepted the fact that I had to learn to live with this. The pain remained the same, but the feeling associated with it did not.
2. But first, go to the doctor
However, before you accept anything, make sure you have the right diagnosis. You may think that you have osteoarthritis, but perhaps it is something completely different. So go to the doctor, have yourself examined and if it turns out that you have osteoarthritis, see if these tips help you.
2.1 Vitamin D
The first thing the rheumatologist suggested after a physical examination was that I had a blood test. Turns out, to my surprise, that I was suffering from severe vitamin D deficiency. Now, usually, the body creates Vitamin D by exposure of the skin to sunlight. As I have lived in Spain for the last 10 years, on the Costa del Sol, where the sun shines 300 days a year I should not have problems with this. I spent a lot of time outdoors, walking, cycling or sitting in the sun on a terrace. But the thing is, I always use a day cream with SPF 20 (because skin cancer). And I am a middle-aged woman, and I am overweight. All factors that contribute to a possible shortage.
And why is that relevant, you might ask?
This is relevant because a deficiency of vitamin D can cause bone and muscle pain in the upper legs and hips. If they already hurt because of osteoarthritis, it will naturally make the discomfort worse. The good news is that vitamin D levels can be improved with supplements and by enjoying the sun. Be careful not to burn, because then the remedy is worse than the disease. Incidentally, it takes a long time before you are back at the minimum level.
The blood test also showed that I had a reasonably low HB level. This, on the other hand, did not surprise me. As a middle-aged woman with years of heavy monthly bleeding and naturally low HB levels, I expected as much. And if you already feel bad because of pain, it is of course not helpful when you are dizzy and tired because of an iron deficiency. Fortunately, this can also be remedied with the right supplements, depending on the cause.
2.3 Menstrual cycle
I also noticed that my symptoms were worse in the week before my period. According to my gynecologist, the pain is not worse, but women are more sensitive to pain in the week before their period. Too bad, nothing can be done about it. However, knowing why one feels more pain one day or the other does help with dealing with it.
2.4. Do not take CBD oil with you
CBD oil (made from cannabis) can have an anti-inflammatory and analgesic effect. Medicinal cannabis oil (CBD, THC or THC / CBD oil) falls under the Opium Act and is therefore only available on prescription (in my home country the Netherlands). I use it. But don’t travel with it. Because in many countries it is still forbidden and since I don’t want the hassle of dealing with irate customs officers or worse go to jail, I take no risk here. When travelling, I usually revert to painkillers.
Many people who suffer from osteoarthritis use painkillers such as paracetamol and ibuprofen. The latter has the disadvantage that it is bad for the stomach. Some doctors, therefore, only prescribe this in combination with stomach protectors. I prefer not to use medicines if not absolutely necessary. But on days when I have to do a lot, I have given myself permission to take one or two paracetamols. It helps.
3. Move those painful joints in osteoarthritis (also when travelling)
If the joints hurt, one tends to use them as little as possible. Wrong, if you believe the experts. It is essential that you continue using them, but in a way that minimises the brunt on the joints. So no running, playing tennis and other high-impact sports. But make sure to keep moving to retain as much flexibility and strength as possible.
Many of the exercises described below area possible do on a trip. Some of these activities are even easier to do when holidaying. Cycling, swimming or walking is often more pleasant in a warm climate. If you suffer from stiffness, do a few yoga or qigong exercises. Use your hotel room. Alternatives are a beach, a park or even an empty train compartment will do the job.
Yoga not only helps with mental flexibility, but it also maintains the flexibility of the joints. However, it is essential, especially with advanced osteoarthritis, that the exercises are adjusted to your abilities. If you have problems with your knees or wrists during activities on the floor, use a folded towel as a cushion for your joints.
If you have a lot of pain, go to a group for seniors. If all goes well, specialised coaches will give you exercises which are adjusted to the level of the group.
If you want to start yoga at home, but you don’t know how:
- Easy Yoga is an instructional app that I use every day for my exercises. The free version is sufficient for me for now, but if I ever become a pro then I can switch to a paid version of this app. Download it on your mobile via the Google Play Store.
- Youtube has all kinds of instructional videos at all levels from beginner to expert.
If yoga turns out to be too difficult, and that was the case with me in the first year after my diagnosis, try Tai Chi.
3.2 Tai Chi and Qigong
Just like with Tai Chi, movements at Qigong are performed slowly and in an attentive, flowing, and relaxed manner starting from the abdomen (Dantian). Breathing, movement and attention increasingly converge during practice. The relaxation response becomes more comfortable and faster. The self-healing ability of your body is thus stimulated, and the effects of your stress response are neutralised.
It may sound a bit hazy, but I find it works. I took a year of classes. These days I practice fifteen minutes each morning at home. In combination with a weekly yoga class, I am far from flexible, but the old bones keep moving.
Swimming is another sport that helps you keep moving without straining your joints as the water carries the body while exercising.
Although you want to avoid overloading your joints, on the other hand, you must use your limbs so that they remain strong to prevent osteoporosis. Walking is a great way to find the right balance between the benefits of exercising and the disadvantages of impact on the joints.
Alternatively, go cycling. On a bike, you work on your fitness, while avoiding straining your joints as much as possible. Take special care of your knees. The saddle and handlebar must be at the correct height. Otherwise, this might cause problems with your joints. Ask a bicycle mechanic to adjust this if necessary.
Well, now that we have your health under control, the next point of attention is luggage.
4. Divide and rule over your luggage.
Bags can make or break your vacation, and that is true even if you do not suffer from stiff joints. The right sort of bag, the way to pack, and how to distribute the weight all matters.
For starters, even if you are healthy, but certainly if you suffer from osteoarthritis, make sure that your luggage is evenly distributed. Meaning do not carry all your things in one shoulder bag.
But of course, distribution is just one tool in your travel bag.
4.1 Travel light
Another one is the art of travelling light. A smart way to pack is the key to your holiday pleasure. It is actually straightforward. Less weight ≡ less taxing for the joints. So prepare what you want to take and halve the number of items. Really.
Look carefully what you really need. Think in layers. Combine where possible. Compare brands and price of carry one luggage.
4.2 Roll suitcase
Unfortunately, sometimes it is unavoidable. A special occasion, an extended stay, different seasons. You have to take more than you can carry. A trolley is then the solution. Because rolling 20 kilos is simply easier than carrying 20 kilos.
4.3 Woman backpacks
If you are going to travel with a backpack, you must use a bag tailored to your body. Women have different shapes than men. The standard backpack is still made for the average male. Luckily nowadays, there are specially designed packs for women. And of course, it is also important how you pack the backpack. I.e. distribute the weight evenly and take care not to load all heavy items in the bottom of your pack.
4.4 Waist bag
When I am on the road, I notice that my handbag is bothering my shoulder. That is why I prefer a waist bag for the things I want to have on hand (wallet, telephone, keys) and for my camera.
Yes, I realise I am not going to be hip anymore.
A waist pack will cost you anywhere between 20 – 40 £.
Unfortunately, the days of stiletto heels and pointed noses are over for me. My feet hurt too much for that. Fortunately, nowadays, there are plenty of choices. A lot of suffering can be prevented with the right footwear. Right, in this case, meaning sturdy – soles which cannot be folded, but are padded. It is also worth investigating whether you can benefit from arch support and insoles for walking shoes. Adequate support can make a big difference to your feet.
For walking, I prefer Lowa or Sketchers shoes.
6. Watch your weight
Last but certainly not the least item on this list is your weight. Yes, when travelling, it can be challenging to eat healthily. Too much, too fat, too sweet, and often the food is lubricated with alcohol. All those extra pounds put unnecessary strain on the joints. And even worse:
Extra kilos cause mechanical damage. Moreover, overweight people more often have osteoarthritis in their knee and hip joints, but the joints in their hands are also affected more frequently.
Okay, to be perfectly honest, I still have to put the last piece of advice into practice. The rest I can assure you help.
7. Money Matters when travelling
- If you travel within the EU and you are a European citizen, you will be insured for medical emergencies via EHIC. Note that this does not include route check-ups. This is especially important when travelling for an extended time. Make sure you are up to date with these, before your departure.
- EHIC also does not cover repatriation, lost luggage, etc. If you need travel insurance click here to obtain a quote.