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Road Trips with Inflammatory Arthritis

Updated: Jul 7, 2021

December 12th, 2019

Traveling with chronic pain

With family members spread across multiple states, two K-9 kiddos, and adventures awaiting across the country, naturally I’m a road-tripper. Most frequently, my road trips serve the sole purpose of getting from point A to point B to visit family. Some of my most enjoyable road trips, however, are purely adventurous in nature.

During my road-tripping explorations, I’ve visited all but four states in the contiguous United States (care to guess at the four?). Whether I was driving Interstate 10 over the Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana, crossing (and often getting stuck on) the George Washington Bridge to get into or out of New York City, or heading north on Utah’s route 163 while watching Monument Valley fade in the rear-view mirror, road trips are the best way to explore the natural beauty and diversity of this land!

Road trips in general have their advantages and their drawbacks. As a person with a chronic disease involving inflammatory arthritis, the drawbacks can seem overwhelming. For me, long car rides with Ankylosing Spondylitis mean more hand pain when gripping the steering wheel for hours, headaches and eye pain with constant exposure to bright sunlight, hip and knee pain when sitting for too long, not to mention the constant stiffness and pain up and down my spine that increases without movement or exercise.

My Typical Road Trip Experience

We make lots of road trips north from New Mexico to visit family. Some of the trips are long (10 driving hours or more), so we like to set off early and take advantage of as much daylight as possible, especially in the winter months.

If I’m lucky enough to start off the day with little pain and stiffness, those issues begin to manifest around hour three. By hour five, the pain and stiffness have made it all the way up my back--from tailbone to neck--with a general feeling of discomfort in my spine that I can only describe as my spine feeling out-of-place. This may be solely from the AS, or a combination of the AS and the scoliosis. Typically by hour six, most of my joints are aching, including my hands, hips, knees, feet, and lately the area around my collar bone.

Monument Valley during a road trip through southern Utah
Photo op at Monument Valley during 2017 road trip through the Four Corners region

Besides comfy clothes (see picture of me and Monument Valley!), perhaps the most useful trick I have to ease the discomfort is to make frequent stops. Sometimes this seems antithetical. On long car rides, often the last thing I want to do is the thing that will prolong the amount of time I’m in the car! But the key here is to spend those stops outside of the car. Since movement tends to ease AS joint pain, it’s important on long car rides to stop every two-three hours and walk around and stretch.

I don’t take my own advice as often as I should! Luckily, traveling with two dogs means we need to stop every few hours for the sake of the dogs. While making stops may be the best relief on a long road trip, there are other remedies to help ease chronic pain in the car.

Tools to Ease Chronic Pain on the Road

The following list is focused mostly (though not completely) on easing back and neck pain, since that’s a main concern for those of us with AS. To make matters worse, the back is one part of the body that’s incredibly difficult to stretch in the car!

1. Heated Seats

Okay, if you don’t have heated seats in your car, you’re certainly not going to go out and buy a new vehicle for this feature! But if you’re renting a vehicle for a road trip, definitely consider getting a car with heated seats. Applying heat is a common and favored technique for soothing joint pain and stiffness, and heated car seats is an easy way to do so while in a vehicle!

2. 12-Volt or USB Heating Pad

If you don’t have heated seats, this may be the next best option! I came across several heating pads online recently that can be powered using a 12-volt or USB outlet! Essentially, these are travel heating pads that can be plugged into the outlets in your car. For me, a heating pad is a necessary tool to help me make it through the workday in my desk chair, and so may be the best tool to help during a long car ride. And this option can be used to soothe more joints than just the ones in your back!

2. Small Camping Pillow

This isn’t for sleeping in the car, though it could serve that purpose as well! Instead, I like to prop a small camping pillow in the small of my back to encourage better posture while sitting in the driver’s seat. I've tried the foam and gel lumbar support cushions, but found those cushions uncomfortable because their width means sitting further forward in the seat and adds further strain to the neck area. I also use the camping pillow in the passenger seat to fill that void between my lower back and the back of the seat when the passenger’s seat is reclined. This technique helps support my lower back, as well as help relax and stretch my back a bit without causing additional strain.

4. Travel Pillow

The travel pillow is for sleeping in the car! As strange as it may look, the travel pillow can also provide some neck support while in either the driver’s or passenger’s seat. Sitting in the car, staring out the windshield for long periods of time causes stress on your neck that the car’s headrest simply doesn’t relieve. Try using one of those circular travel pillows that wrap around your neck to relieve some of the weight of your head and strain on your next.

5. Pain Cream with Lidocaine

Pain cream is an absolute necessity, whether in or out of the car. I find myself carrying some type of pain cream everywhere with me, and even keep a bottle of it in my car! For OTC pain cream, I prefer one with Lidocaine because it provides an almost instant numbing sensation.

Road trips with chronic pain can seem stormy and unpleasant without tools to ease the pain.

6. Quality Polarized Sunglasses

I have uveitis, so it’s imperative that I’m equipped with eye-wear that properly protects my eyes. That may not be the case for you. But if you do suffer from eye inflammation, get yourself a quality pair of polarized sunglasses. I find it best for long car rides to have a pair of sunglasses that can protect your peripheral vision from sunlight as well.

Well, there are my suggestions for making long car rides more manageable for those with chronic pain and arthritis! Happy road-tripping!



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