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Tips for Traveling with Chronic Pain + 6 Products I Use to Relieve Head and Neck Pain

First things first - I'm not a doctor, nor do I claim to be anything in the realm of a healthcare specialist, however, I do live with a chronic cervicogenic headache (similar to migraines) from a whiplash injury and can share with you what has worked for me when I travel.


Of course, it would seem like the only time these reoccurring headaches crop up are at the most inopportune times - when dolling up for a big night out, or perhaps when embarking on a long travel day. In fact, it's common for my type of injury to be influenced by stress or even the simplest jarring motion of the neck muscles.


No longer are the days of carnival rides or roller coasters, and I certainly won't be doing any adventure sports any time soon. In fact, I've completely had to change the way I approach the world, and more specifically, travel. Below I share some of the tried and tested tricks that have worked for me in making head pain bearable while traveling. Hopefully some of these considerations will work for you, too.


Note: Always Pack Tissues represents many tried and tested travel sites as what is called an 'affiliate' partner. That means if you click on my ads I may get a commission from a resulting sale.


Know Your Triggers

It's important to know what can set off your migraine or headache at home, because when you travel expect it to amp up a few notches.


Drink plenty of water and get lots of sleep. A sleepless night tossing and turning on the wrong pillow or cricking my neck in the wrong way will set me off on an awful day of adventuring. Especially when trying to adjust to jet lag (tips on that here).


When we travel we often forget to drink as much water as at home. Airplanes are especially dehydrating, and the free alcohol on overseas flights doesn't help. Always bringing a large refillable bottle for flights is important to your head health. This Brita water bottle is perfect for sifting through hard water contaminants and has a handle you can clip to a carabiner.


Aside from dehydration or funny sleep positions, I know that simply turning my head the wrong way too fast or reaching into the backseat of a car to help my daughter with something can twist me up the wrong way and send me into a pain spiral pretty quickly. Ask for help when you need it, don't overdo any heavy bag lifting, and take it slow.



two camels and a dog illuminated by a sunrise
Don't let your pain stop you from living!

Bring Relief

For when your head pain hits, be prepared.



Medications

I don't know about you, but I've never been a fan of pain relievers. Especially if you are on vacation, do you really want to live in a fog or rely on your meds? With jet lag already messing me up I try to go as "au natural" as possible. Of course if you do need your meds, just be sure to review the CDC website for information on traveling abroad with prescriptions and medication if you have any concerns about a particular drug.



Products I Can't Live Without

There's a few things I either have stashed away at each of my holiday homes (my apartment in Spain and my travel trailer) or if they are small enough, I'll pack them for my trips. In any case, I try to have these items specifically or something similar on hand or within reach at the nearest store.


A note on that: getting pharmacy items outside of the United States isn't always as easy as walking into Walmart. In fact, it can be a bit of an event if there's a language barrier, so bring what you are able from home.


SO, the products that I use to treat my headaches when traveling:


Headbands and Hats

Don't underestimate the power of a headband. The tightness of a hat or headband around my skull provides easy, cheap relief and I can literally pack dozens if I wanted to.


I specifically like the simple cloth style that goes around my whole head (opposed to the traditional headband that sits on top). These whole-head headbands put pressure at the base of my skull the same way a gel ice pack may do when I'm laying down. Except the beauty is, the headband is an on-the-go product that packs small.


I literally have one of these headbands in every travel purse or carry-on. I bring at least three per vacation, because I have to accessorize my outfits of course!


If you ever see me out and about with a headband on, the chances are I'm probably suffering a major headache behind my smile. But you'd never know!



woman eats grasshoppers
Me eating grasshoppers in Oaxaca (with a really bad headache!) You wouldn't know though but the headband gives it away.


Ice Packs

I have several versions of ice packs for the base of my skull and also for around my head. Both are literally life changers at home or when I travel. In a pinch, bring some baggies or Ziplocs from home and ask for ice at the nearest bar or restaurant, or from your hotel ice machine (if there is one!).


I recommend these two products whole heartedly:



pink ice head wrap and packaging

I have the Permade brand, but I don't think it matters which you choose. I keep it in the fridge (perfect for mini bars in hotel rooms) and never in the freezer (way too cold I find). I wear this almost like a headband around my head and it does some amazing work relieving my headaches fast.



cold gel pack blue with white cloth

This item is something I have to lay down to use, which can really chop into a travel fun day, but it's worth sitting down with to relax and recoup. Set at the base of the skull, it relieves the tension in the neck muscles and allows for the head pain to eventually reduce naturally.


Note that both of these products may need to be in checked baggage due to TSA Liquid Rules about gels.


Lidocaine Relief

These are really cool, but not always very effective. A lot of my head pain stems from muscle pain in the top of my shoulder so I am able to rub on Icy Hot type of products or use patches from time to time with varied results. The lidocaine patches are easily packed in a carry on bag.


The Game Changing Pillow(s)

This contoured support pillow built for cervical support has literally changed my life. I love this pillow so much that I have four of them spread across my homes. I cannot express how much this pillow has relieved my neck pain from countless nights at bad-pillow hotels or the constant fluffing and muffing of discount pillows that I used to sleep on.


This pillow has two sides with different heights and it cradles your neck softly in the middle. I don't carry this pillow everywhere I go, but note that if I did, airlines do not count your pillow as an extra carry on.


Check out more about this product on Amazon here.


Lastly, buy yourself a neck pillow for the airplane. It has significantly increased my quality of sleep on overnight flights, and helps to minimize my neck pain. Honestly you don't need anything wild or expensive, just a nice cushy pillow with a button to connect it to your bag, preferably. Learn more about how to pack your personal bag for overnight flights here.





Types of Travel You Can Manage

Whether you suffered an injury in a car accident like me, or have been battling migraine pain for decades, the symptoms are fairly similar and can be tremendously debilitating. Plan a trip that you can manage, one that won't send you down a path of pain! Here's some ideas:


  • A trip to the vineyards paired with some spa time (that massage will help...and so will the wine!). I especially recommend something offbeat like Ile d'Orleans in Quebec.

  • A cruise anywhere in the world. Cruising is an exceptionally low-impact way to travel. More on how to Book a Cruise here.

  • Go on a shopping vacation, like we did in Oaxaca. Bring virtually empty suitcases and hit up all the amazing markets, sample local cuisine, and just relax.



woman stands in a vineyard


Final Note on Traveling with Chronic Pain

No matter your style of travel, traveling with chronic pain doesn't have to be an impossible feat. Know your limitations, prepare for re-occurrences with trusted pain relief products, and create the vacation that you know you can manage based on your capabilities.


I write this to hopefully encourage my readers to understand a moderate chronic pain does not have to define your life or prevent you from traveling. Hospitals abroad are there in the event of an emergency (and I've done it) and pharmacies are available if you need them. Don't restrict yourself from enjoying your life and don't let your pain hold you back. Some days you may just be smiling to get through, but smiling in a vineyard in Spain sure beats sitting in your jammies on the couch at home any day. Get out and see the world now, and bring your bravery (and ice packs!) with you.


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