Managing chronic pain on the 12+ hour flight to New Zealand

Since developing chronic pain that accompanies an autoimmune condition, I’ve continued to indulge my love of travel, but learned to adapt my bookings and my belongings to minimize pain and maximize comfort.


Flights of six hours or so are regular occurrences for me and my family. I’ve had a couple of very painful trips of this duration, but, more typically, I can tolerate them by adjusting my medication slightly and employing a few aids such as wrist braces, inflatable cushions, and hot water bottles.


This winter, I faced the longest single flight I’ve ever taken: 12 hours and 40 minutes just for one leg from Los Angeles, CA to Auckland, New Zealand. The combination of traversing the United States from our New England home (6.5 hours), crossing the Pacific (12.7 hours), then connecting to our final destination of Christchurch, NZ on the South Island (1.4 hours) made for a total time in the air of 20.5 hours.

Of course, one must also add to that total the requisite airport waiting time required by international flight connections, customs, security, and the necessity of allowing adequate buffers in case of delays. At least two full days of my calendar were bound to be eaten up by this voyage in each direction.

After considering many options, I elected to travel in two distinct stages for both directions of travel. This meant parting ways with my husband entirely for the domestic portion of our trip. His schedule doesn’t allow for an unnecessary day spent in transit where tighter connections are possible.†

I was away from home for a total of fourteen days; DH, by taking his domestic and international flights serially on the way out—and heading home on a red eye straight off the international leg—traveled for twelve days.

Though this post isn’t really meant to be a trip report, it must be said: even two weeks is barely adequate for visiting the antipodes. If you can squeeze more days out of your schedule, use them for a trip of this magnitude.

New Zealand is awesome, and well worth every hard won vacation day.

My itinerary outbound:

BOS-PDX on Alaska Air 33, Saturday 16:20-20:10

Three night stay with family in the Pacific NW

PDX-LAX on Alaska Air 568, Tuesday 10:50-13:22

LAX-AKL on Air New Zealand 5, Tuesday 21:40-Thursday 07:20*

AKL-CHC on Air New Zealand 527, Thursday 09:00-10:20

My itinerary for the return:

CHC-AKL on Air New Zealand 574, Friday 20:00-21:20

AKL-LAX on Air New Zealand 2, Friday 22:50-13:35**

Overnight hotel stay at the Crown Plaza LAX

LAX-BOS on Virgin America flight 1360, Saturday 07:05-15:34

Itinerary adaptations to reduce pain

I’ll repeat what I feel was the single most important adaptation I made to my itinerary to accommodate my autoimmune condition and its symptoms: I took extra time.

Travel. Stop. Recover. Repeat.

Heading west, I took advantage of family who live near the Portland airport who don’t seem to mind my visits, spending three nights at their home. This sleepover gave me time to recover from the initial cross country flight and ease my body’s adjustment to a change of three time zones.

NZ Crowne Plaza LAX hotel room - 1Upon arrival in New Zealand, I had already acclimated from the Eastern to Pacific zone (USA West Coast) which represents half of the total time shock. Though the flight is lo-o-o-o-ong, most of the travel between California and New Zealand is in a southerly direction. You only drop three more time zones on that 12 hour flight.

Heading west is also usually less difficult in terms of jet lag.

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Rushing for life experiences when chronic illness fuels your fears

I’ve had the great fortune to travel regularly throughout my life.

I enjoyed those pivotal vacation experiences of a happy middle class childhood: a couple of trips to Disneyland and bragging rights about having flown on airplanes and crossed a national border or two, if only to near neighbors Mexico and Canada.

I attended college in a different region from Home. I flew cross country at least four times a year because of this one fact. I built my desire to see the world into my educational plans, and it worked out well for me.

I didn’t even mind long distance romances in my youth, because what could offer better motivation for frequent trips? I love having a journey coming up in my calendar.

Later, working as a software engineer, I had the privilege of visiting subcontractor sites in Denmark and Spain on my employer’s dime. At the same time, I was a single, adequately employed young adult during the roaring 1990’s before the bubble burst.

For as long as I’ve had the option, I’ve traveled regularly, and I’ve enjoyed most of it. I dream of “seeing the world.” I’ll be grateful for every corner that I reach.

Yet, in spite of all this to-ing and fro-ing, there has been a certain rhythm to my rambling. At my youthful peak, I was not a high energy traveler. As a middle aged mother with a couple of kids in tow, my pace is typically sedate, and I prioritize comfort and convenience over the heights of adventure.

Looking back over our family travels, a pattern emerges. Every few years, we’ve had a “grand adventure.” How grand is Grand has changed with our finances and family status, but it’s always been a cycle of plan, anticipate, then go.

Maybe Go! with a capital and an exclamation mark expresses it better.

“But lately something’s changed, it ain’t hard to define…”* Or, rather, it isn’t hard to unearth the cause of the shift. I’m scrambling. I’m rushing. I’m tumbling from one trip to another without enough time to fully digest each experience.

Some of my trips bump up hard enough against the next that I feel more overwhelmed than anticipatory.

I know why I’m doing it, too. I’m afraid.

I’ve been saying yes to one trip after another because I’m afraid it will be my last chance to travel before I’m sidelined by infirmity and pain. Continue reading

Bluetooth keyboard: Logitech K780 liberates a writer on the move

If I hadn’t purchased a Bluetooth keyboard, this blog would have about 30% of its current content. My preferred portable input device is a Logitech K780 model.

I bought mine from Amazon about a year ago when I began writing regularly for my blog. I quickly realized that hand discomfort was my limiting factor for writing long form content away from my desk with an iPad. I paid $75 then; today’s price is several dollars less.

keyboard in use - 1

My Logitech K780 keyboard in use on a lap desk

The dedicated keys for switching almost instantaneously between three devices are a major factor in my enjoyment of this particular keyboard. Those are the three white keys at the upper left of the K780 in the photo above.

Because I experience arthritis pain and stiffness in my fingers and wrists, tapping on a touchscreen while holding a device can be difficult, excruciating, or even impossible.

If I have my keyboard out, I use it to enter even short, simple text messages into my Android Blu R1 phone. Using the Logitech K780 is that much more comfortable for me.

keyboard Logitech bluetooth K780 - 5

Slim, but for the hump

Two other functions made the K780 the best keyboard for me:

  1. I prefer a keyboard with a numeric keypad for efficient data entry, and
  2. the indented slot simultaneously holds phones and tablets in place while I work.

That first one won’t matter to many users. If you don’t use the number pad on your current keyboard often or ever!, then by all means choose a smaller, lighter Bluetooth keyboard for your use on the go.*

Logitech offers the K380 model which has one touch device switching, like my K780, but without the built-in stand, or the K480, with stand, but using a fussy-looking dial instead of a keystroke to change devices. I haven’t tried either of those.

The little ledge that holds a device, however, will likely appeal to many users. Imagine a small, parallelogram-shaped valley parallel to your top row of keyboard keys, and you’ll have the form of this feature on the Logitech K780. It works well, supporting even a full sized iPad without a wobble on flat surfaces.

What makes this work exceedingly well for me is the full width keyboard (remember that numeric pad!) that leaves room for an iPad Pro—inside its thin, folio style case—as well as two cell phones. Not only can I swap which device I desire to control in an instant with the press of a physical button, but I also have that same device in view without juggling electronics.

Because we’ve talked about how well I juggle these days, right? My arthritis makes me drop things frequently as well as causing pain.

Continue reading

Pacing yourself: good advice for chronic illness, and everyone else, too!

It’s been so long since my last post, subscribers and regular readers may have wondered if I fell off the face of the Earth. Fret no more! I’m alive, but I have hosted a major holiday party and traversed a healthy arc around our little blue planet.

Between the trip–which I’ll write about soon–and the annual marathon that is serving Thanksgiving dinner to 19 people, I have been running right at the edge of my available pool of energy.

I have been writing, but I haven’t finished anythin…*

If you can believe it, I have over 50 draft posts in various stages of completion. What I haven’t had is any stamina left at the end of these busy days to polish up a given post for presentation to my readers.

I think I’ve mentioned it before: I’m not a real-time writer. Or, at least, I’m not even attempting to keep up with the pace of life since this blog is a hobby for me. I’m writing about Really Wonderful Things because I enjoy it. I’m trying to keep it that way.

I feel bad when I fail to post regularly. I cherish the sharing aspect of my own blog and those I follow. Slacking off on my posting schedule of a mere two pieces per week leaves me feeling guilty, and even a little anxious.

What if I lose a lot of followers? What if I lose a favorite frequent commenter?

And this is where I have to remind myself of the reality of my situation. I’ve written about accepting my limitations in the context of travel, and I think I give myself plenty of permission to do so when away from home.

What’s much harder is to take my expectations down a notch at home. Real life is a marathon, not a sprint, but there are so few obvious places to let things slide when it comes to parenthood and caring for your family.

The thoughts sound like this:

“If I don’t make this one birthday count, it is gone forever. My child won’t have good memories of turning X years old.”

Or this:

“Extended family and a dozen friends are coming for Thanksgiving. If I don’t make it a good one, I’ve ruined a holiday for 20 people.”

There’s a kernel of truth here, but most of it is anxiety talking. I don’t invite over the kind of “friend” who would blame me for a Thanksgiving catastrophe. If I had family members who actively tried to lay down that kind of guilt trip, I would consciously reject it as nonsense.

Beneath my conscious mind, however, is the deeply ingrained message I’ve been internalizing since infancy that 1) opening my messy house to people as is tells them I don’t care that they’ve come, and 2) any failings in our family’s hospitality belong to me, the wife and mother.

I’ve put a lot of effort into inviting people over “in spite of” the usual state of our home. Life can be so hectic, and it is hard to find a time that works to see good friends; an unwashed load of towels or a project-in-progress in front of the TV can’t be allowed to block a chance to socialize with companionable souls. Those moments are too precious.

And all of that was before an autoimmune condition reduced my available store of energy from less-than-average to downright-low. At this point in my life, there are days where I choose between cleaning up the kitchen at the end of the day or eating dinner; some days, I fail to do either because I’m too tired to accomplish even one “trivial” task.

So when it comes to hosting Thanksgiving, for example, I had to choose between planning the menu and buying ingredients for the dinner (the main point of the event), or preparing a more comfortable guest room for out of town visitors. And did I mention that I was leaving town for an international trip 48 hours after Thanksgiving dinner?

Tidying the great room where we hold the party was such a distant last on my list of priorities, it was hard to even see it at the horizon.

Without a doubt, I get some flak about these failings from people who truly don’t understand how I can be taking a break on the couch when people are coming over within hours and my house “looks like this.” I know that I need that break or I won’t be able to stand on my bad foot to prepare a meal; not everyone can or will understand that point.

Honestly, I hope they never come to a point of realizing how hard simple things can be for someone with chronic illness. It really stinks. I wouldn’t wish is on my worst enemy.

Add to my list of “the hard work” of hosting a large party the effort to reject others’ unrealistic expectations for me. It may be the hardest thing I deal with at some events!

We welcome others into our homes to share time, experiences, and the very real products of our hearts. We cook for each other and care for each other because we can, and because we want to.

When I take whatever energy I have and translate that into action in real terms, it is a gift to those I love. I choose to believe it will be received that way, whether I make a fancy shape of it or hand it over in a messy bundle.

This holiday season, I hope we can all focus on why we invite others to share with us. Spend a little less effort on worrying about how you measure up! If you find yourself leaning toward the latter, back up a step and take a breath.

It’s a privilege to be free to celebrate as we see fit.

It’s an honor to host friends and loved ones in our homes, and to have more than we need to share.

Try not to go down the rabbit hole of should have and could be; be grateful to enjoy what is, here and now, and those who’ve graced you with their presence.

And, if someone makes you feel less than great for what you have to offer, leave them to their negativity and add it to your list of blessings. At least you are glad for what you have, and who you are!

I will try to do a little better about piping up twice a week and staying in touch with my followers. I sincerely wish for a season of peace, abundance, and joy to everyone reading, and everyone else besides.


*Quoting a cute, hand-drawn postcard I had pinned outside my college dorm room. I wonder where that card has gone…

Letting reality be good enough: enjoying travel in spite of chronic pain

Sometimes, reality intervenes between our ideal experience and one we can achieve.

Since being diagnosed with an autoimmune condition, I’ve found myself having to adjust my expectations for many facets of life. That includes my hobbies, which can be hard enough to prioritize for a stay at home mother of two.

One of my favorite things is travel. I’m not a full on globetrotter like some, but my trips—planning them as well as taking them—are great highlights of my life.

In the past year, I’ve had to cancel much-loved annual jaunts due to flaring symptoms. I’ve had to “waste” money already spent on non-refundable tickets, and I’ve regretted going on excursions for which I was in no condition to participate.

I’ve found myself asking:

Should I even try to travel for pleasure anymore now that I’ve been diagnosed with autoimmune disease?”

My answer to that question—when the flare passes, and when the pain and exhaustion have subsided—is that I should. In fact, I must carry on.

If I don’t persevere, the disease wins. If I give up what I love, I’m choosing misery over joy. I never want to live that way.

I got dealt a bad hand this time around, but it’s the only one I’ve got to play. I can make the best of it, or I can quit the game. I could just watch the other players, but what fun would that be? That’s not the life for me. Nor would I wish such circumstances on anyone else.

With that said, here are a few tips for putting some of the pleasure back in travel for a traveler with a chronic condition. Continue reading

Such a simple solution: cold feet cured with a double duty metal water bottle

A hot water bottle by one’s frigid feet is a classic winter comfort. If you suffer from ice cubes for toes and haven’t yet discovered the joy of this simple but effective warmer, do try one as the nights regain their chill.*

Here’s a so-simple-it’s-silly solution to the same problem in an overly air conditioned hotel room or when encountering unseasonably cold weather camping:

Use a refillable/reusable metal drink bottle full of hot water as a bed- and foot-warmer. Consider it a more petite cousin of the old-fashioned rubber hot water bottle you could pick up at a pharmacy.

Sigg water bottles - 1

Swiss made aluminum bottles by Sigg, well used for almost a decade; dented, but still leak-free

Fill your bottle from the coffee machine (run it without coffee in the basket), the hot tap in the bathroom, or even use water you’ve heated over a campfire. I’ve tapped all of these for fuel to fight freezing feet. Just pour carefully as your source water gets hotter.

Esbit stove hot water - 1

If you have to heat your water this way, allow lots of extra time before bed…

Make sure your bottle has a tight-fitting, secure lid that won’t come loose inadvertently and soak your bed! I like flip top lids for daily use, but I only travel with bottles that include sturdy screw caps. I also routinely carry a small but super absorbent PackTowl in the same pocket of my pack to catch small leaks and drips before they threaten my papers and electronics.

Sigg metal water bottle in PackTowl - 1

PackTowl Personal model in Face size 10×14″ 0.7oz (25×35 cm, 21g)

Consider slipping the warm bottle into a sock (or a spare pillowcase) for insulation. This is vital if you’ve used scalding hot water. You want to avoid burns. Also, as the bottle cools, it will become a less cozy object to encounter. Don’t startle yourself awake by kicking a hard metal tube in the middle of the night.

You could just carry a traditional rubber hot water bottle while globe trotting. From my perspective, though, they are too large to include in a carry on travel bag. At around 12 oz, they’re also fairly heavy.rubber hot water bottle - 1

A rubber hot water bottle is a single task item. Those of us who enjoy traveling with fewer encumbrances often seek out smaller, lighter, and multi-functional gear for trips. I take no small measure of pleasure in the coup of finding tremendous extra benefit from something I was already carrying.

I always bring my own drinking water bottle to fill post-security at the airport to avoid both disposable plastic bottles and the exorbitant prices at the gate area kiosks. At home and on road trips, we have a water bottle in the car for every family member. Now, I’m simply specifying a particular bottle that can serve an additional function, and I’m a lot more comfortable for the effort.

Gentle heat, thoughtfully applied, can also provide soothing pain relief for some conditions, like my joint pain. It’s hard to overstate the value of something like that to anyone with a chronic condition that’s exacerbated by travel.

There’s just one problem that I’ve discovered with this clever solution: my family has caught on to how I’m using my bottle to warm my bed. The kids give me sad eyed looks and tell me their feet are cold! If you’re traveling as a family, it might be best to upgrade everyone’s drink bottle to a sturdy stainless steel model with an excellent lid.

Your cold feet will thank you, even if the kids don’t.



*If you’re like me, your cold feet may recur regardless of season or outdoor temperature, which is what prompted me to begin writing this post in August!

Such a simple solution: easing hip pain during air travel with inflatable seat cushions

Here’s a simple solution to try if you are prone to joint pain during the forced immobility of air travel. Add at least one inflatable pillow to your carry on kit. Even better, carry a pair of different shaped inflatables.

While I’m frustrated by the amount of “stuff” that is now a mandatory part of my travel experience, I carry it all because it helps with different manifestations of my autoimmune condition. I’m not going to stop exploring the world, and I’d prefer not to suffer too much as I go about it.

Inflatable pillows of different shapes and thicknesses can be arranged to buffer hard armrests, prop up feet to change the angle of the legs, support the lower back, or (the most tradition option) cushion a lolling head for a much-needed nap.

This time, my Klymit “Cush” pillow deployed under my knees took the pressure off of an aching hip and spared me from another hour of excruciating pain or resorting to opiates during a trip where I’d prefer to stay in full command of my faculties.

The Klymit pillow differs from most I’ve seen due to its shape. It’s long (~30 inches, inflated) and narrow (9 inches) unlike typical, chair-seat-sized rectangular seat cushions. It’s easily wrapped around, or folded and layered, for varied types of support, and it was exactly what I needed in the moment.

This same feature is oft cited by other reviewers as a negative, but my own experience proves the value in making and marketing a new kind of pillow.

A few hours into a recent flight, my right hip started to ache in a miserable way. It was a stabbing pain, almost severe enough to make me cry out. Exactly how I’d like to behave on a full flight!

The hip is not even one of my main “problem areas” for joint pain, but I’ve been experiencing a prolonged period of more frequent flares in my small joints, and that usually means spikes of pain in the larger joints for me, too. In spite of the flare, I had a trip that couldn’t wait, requiring a flight across the country.

I opted for a layover instead of my usual direct flight to allow myself a mid-journey movement break. I even splurged on a first class seat for one segment of the trip, but sitting for seven hours is sitting for seven hours. Joint pain and stiffness was inevitable.

While the short walk to the restroom and a set of stretches in the galley paused the worst of it, this was a stop-gap solution that couldn’t be prolonged or easily repeated. There just isn’t room on a plane for a body in crisis.

After experimenting with my Therm-a-rest “Trail Seat” cushion, the standard airplane pillow provided by the airline, a blanket, and the Klymit, the winner was clear. Extended to its full length across the front edge of my seat cushion, the Klymit changed my seating angle enough to stop the spasms wracking my hip for the remaining hour of the flight.

The 91-year-old gentleman seated next to me was quite gracious in his silence about my odd maneuvers as I attempted to get comfortable. I’m sure he was curious about all the pillows and props I kept pulling out of my bag!

A pair of airline pillows might have duplicated the effect, but I only had one. With the airlines providing ever stingier accommodations, I wouldn’t want to count on even having that single courtesy pillow.

I could try folding the Therm-a-rest to double its thickness, but it wouldn’t raise the angle of both knees, nor am I sure that it would hold up well to a sharp fold.*

Rolling the blanket would be the next best option, but I was already using it to keep warm. Yes, when my arthritis flares up, I also suffer from both warm and cold spells wherein I can’t seem to regulate my own body temperature properly. That’s why a small down throw blanket is another vital element in my travel kit.

My tote full of inflatable cushions earns me a few stares, but also quite a few envious comments from people wishing they’d thought to pack something similar along. That’s why I offer this post today.

I have personally bought and used the following inflatable travel pillows.

*Later, I experimented with folding the Therm-a-rest “Trail Seat,” and it held up fine to this abuse. It didn’t result in a thick pillow that would stay in position, however, like the Klymit Cush, so wasn’t the best tool for this particular job. I have found nothing to complain about with Therm-a-rest products or build quality.

Camping in comfort when you live with chronic pain: begin with the bed

Growing up, my family took more camping vacations than any other kind. We went annually with the same people—friends with kids my age. Even when we moved to a neighboring state, we traveled for hours to camp with them.

These are golden memories for me, and it’s the kind of tradition I’d like to re-create for my own kids.

Camp Coleman Instant Tent 6

Coleman Instant Tent – 6 person model (Retail $180)

Lately, the trick has been figuring out how to travel the way I want to, experiencing the world at large, when my body has developed an autoimmune condition that sporadically surprises me with painful symptoms.

Camping for people of all abilities

Should a person with occasionally debilitating joint pain risk going camping?

Pardon my French, but: Continue reading