11 Tips for Flying with Arthritis

The holiday season is upon us again, which for many people means booking flights to spend time with loved ones. Flying can be a hassle for everyone—but for those with a chronic condition like arthritis, it can be even more so.

If you have a flight coming up, there are steps you can take to manage arthritis pain and stiffness.

See How Arthritis Causes Joint Pain

chair stretch If you have space, leg lifts are a good seated exercise to do on a plane. See Knee Stretches

The arthritis patients most likely to have difficulties with flying have arthritis in their lower body, such as hip or knee osteoarthritis. Those with arthritis in the spine or lower back, for example people with ankylosing spondylitis, may also struggle.

See What Is Spinal Osteoarthritis (Facet Joint Arthritis)?

Article continues below
Advertisement

Here's what you can do both before your flight and during it to make it more comfortable.

Before you go…

  1. Talk with your doctor to make sure you have enough medication for the full length of your trip, and maybe even a little extra in case of lost luggage or a delay.
  2. See Arthritis Treatment Specialists

  3. If you have a long flight, also ask if an additional prescription-strength pain medication would be appropriate for you.
  4. Before your trip, call the airline to inform them you have a medical condition. With advance notice, they should be able to:
    • Provide you with wheelchair assistance and early boarding, if necessary
    • Have airline personnel carry your luggage for you and/or lift it into the overhead bin for you
    • Accommodate you with special shuttles and elevator platforms for boarding
  5. Consider booking a flight when there will be fewer people on board and more room for you to stretch out or get up to walk. A travel agent or airline representative can help you determine this. Also, choose the aisle seat so it will be easier to stretch or get up and move around during the flight.
  6. Don't schedule a flight that will require you to wake up extremely early, especially if your joints tend to be achy in the morning.

During your flight…

  1. Take over-the-counter pain medication like Advil or naproxen (Aleve) to provide pain relief during the flight. Take it one hour before your flight to give it time to get into your system.
  2. See Pain Medications for Arthritis Pain Relief

  3. Provide support to your joints during the flight. For lower back pain, provide support behind your lower back with a back roll or a pillow. If you use a brace for your affected joint, bring or wear it.
  4. Practice good posture in your seat. If your legs are not at a right angle when you sit in the seat, ask for something (pillows, blankets) to prop up your feet and keep your knees at a right angle.
  5. See Self Care and Exercise to Treat Spine Osteoarthritis

  6. Get up and walk around during long flights. According to a recent review of 10 studies, people with rheumatoid arthritis have twice the risk of deep vein thrombosis as those who don't have RA.1 Deep vein thrombosis occurs when a blood clot forms in the veins of your legs due to inactivity.
  7. See Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms

    If your flight is longer than 4 hours, you can help prevent deep vein thrombosis by getting up to walk around at least every 2 to 3 hours.

  8. Do seat exercises. This will help prevent stiffness in your joints while sitting during the flight and also decrease your risk for deep vein thrombosis.

    The following exercises can be done while you're in flight:

    • Raise and lower your toes while keeping your heels on the ground
    • Raise and lower your heels while your toes stay on the ground.
    • Tighten and relax the muscles in your legs.
    • If you have space, lift your foot off the floor and straighten your leg until you feel it in your hamstrings (see illustration above).

    See Knee Strengthening Exercises

  9. Use heat or ice therapy. If either heat or ice helps ease your joint pain, don't be afraid to use it on the plane too. Bring along and use heat wraps or have a resealable plastic bag on hand and ask the attendant to fill it with ice.

    See Applying Heat vs. Cold to an Arthritic Joint

The reward of getting together with loved ones is usually worth the pain of getting there, but that doesn't mean you can't make the trip a little easier and more comfortable with these tips.

Learn more:

Hip Osteoarthritis Causes and Risk Factors

What Is Knee Osteoarthritis?

References:

  1. "A meta-analysis of the risk of venous thromboembolism in inflammatory rheumatic diseases." Arthritis Research & Therapy 2014, 16:435
Post written by Carrie DeVries