travel with Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis occurs at all ages

Osteoarthritis is something for the elderly, so I thought until I turned 50. Before, I was relatively 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 connected 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, a condition of the joints where the cartilage in one or more joints is damaged and does not recover sufficiently.

On the one hand, the diagnosis was a relief, as I finally knew what was wrong with me. But on the other hand, knowing that I could do nothing about it made me mildly unhappy. Of course, there are worse things in the world regarding health, but still. It had 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, 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, like 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 pretty frustrated for a while. Until I accepted, 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 accepting anything, make sure you have the correct 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. It turns out, to my surprise, that I was suffering from severe vitamin D deficiency. Now, usually, the body creates Vitamin D by exposing the skin to sunlight. I have lived in Spain for the last ten 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 of skin cancer). And I am a middle-aged woman, and I am overweight. All factors contributing to a possible shortage.

And why is that relevant, you might ask?

This is relevant because vitamin D deficiency can cause bone and muscle pain in the upper legs and hips. If the joints already hurt because of osteoarthritis, it will worsen the discomfort. The good news is that you can improve your vitamin D levels with supplements and by enjoying the sun. Incidentally, it takes a long time before you are back at the minimum level.

2.2 Anemia

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 gynaecologist, 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 it is still forbidden in many countries, and since I don’t want the hassle of dealing with angry customs officers or, worse, going to jail, I take no risk here. When travelling, I usually revert to painkillers.

2.5 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 necessary. But on days when I have to do a lot, I have permitted myself 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 are possible to 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.

Osteoarthritis  benefits of yoga

3.1 Yoga

Yoga helps with mental flexibility, but it also maintains the flexibility of the joints. However, always adjust the exercises to your abilities, especially with advanced osteoarthritis. For example, 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. Specialised coaches will give you exercises adjusted to the group level.


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. However, if I ever become a pro, 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, 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

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. As a consequence, the relaxation response becomes more comfortable and faster. Your body’s self-healing ability 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.

3.3. Swimming

Swimming is another sport that helps you keep moving without straining your joints as the water carries the body while exercising.

3.4. Walking

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.

3.5 Cycling

Alternatively, go cycling. On a bike, you work on your fitness level 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.

travel with Osteoarthritis use a trolley

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 distributing the weight all matter.

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 straightforward. Less weight equals less burden on the joints. So prepare what you want to take and halve the number of items. Really.

Look carefully at what you need. Think in layers. Combine where possible.

4.2  Suitcase on wheels

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 the solution because rolling 20 kilos is more manageable 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 gear is 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.

Compare price and type.

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 my camera.

Yes, I realise I am not going to be hip anymore.

A waist pack will cost you anywhere between 20 – 40 £.

5. Shoes

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. The proper footwear can prevent a lot of suffering. Right, in this case, means sturdy – soles that cannot fold 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.

Compare different kinds and prices of insoles.

For walking, I prefer Lowa or Sketchers shoes.

6. Watch your weight

Last but 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, I still have to put the last piece of advice into practice. However, the other tips help for sure.

7. Money Matters when travelling

  • If you travel within the EU and 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.

8. Enjoy

Finally, you are travelling, so don’t forget to enjoy yourself. Body and mind are one. Being able to relax mentally helps your physical well-being.

8.1 Drink a glass of red wine every day, as it is healthy according to the red wine lobby. It is said to be anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and good for the heart and blood vessels (source). So I like to believe it. But never drink more than strictly necessary.

8.2 Especially if you are in southern countries or the tropics, eat or drink fresh pineapple. An extract (bromeliad) from the pineapple is a potent anti-inflammatory. Also, the substance acts as a pain reliever and gives your immune system a boost.

8.3 Use ginger in your tea or food because ginger also has anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties.

8.4 Or do like my friend and prepare your drink like this:

For two litres

  • Half a Hawaiian pineapple, preferably the orange one, the much sweeter and twice as expensive as the ordinary pineapple.
  • 45 grams of ginger, but more is possible if you like it spicier.
  • 1/3 ripe plantain or half a regular banana. The ripe plantain is tastier because it has an apple flavour. The function of the banana is also that the drink becomes smooth and firm.
  • A tablespoon of honey as a sweetener and flavouring.
  • Two litres of water, preferably cold.


Cut the ginger, banana and pineapple into pieces to not burden the blender too much. Then put these ingredients in the blender, add honey and water and blend.

8.5 A variant of this, instead of water, use ½ litre of soy milk. This way, you get a delicious smoothie.

Cheers to your health!

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