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 dot.com 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.

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Pain makes me less approachable; pain makes you like me less

When I’m in pain, I am certain that I’m less receptive to the good in the world around me.

A recent study showed that it is possible to diagnose depression remotely by analyzing the photos people post to social media. Depressed people view the world so differently, their acts of self-expression change.

Along similar lines, I’ve noticed that I view people around me in a different light when my chronic pain flares. I’ve caught myself cynically judging the sincerity of a smile on a woman’s face, or angry at a pedestrian for his freedom to walk presumably without pain.

This isn’t my natural personality. I have a sincere love for—and trust in the goodness of—humanity that my darling husband finds charmingly(?) naive.Untitled

I like to joke that I’m a functional misanthrope, but that’s got more to do with my introversion and some social anxiety than any real disdain for humanity. I am overjoyed by the heights of human achievement. I believe that we, as a species, will persevere and do wonderful things.

That’s my perspective. That’s who I really am.

Pain, however, distorts my every impression.

And, I’m less likeable when I’m in pain. Continue reading

Beastie massage ball as portable preventative, and sometimes cure, for tension headaches and associated maladies

The “Beastie” massage ball is one of those little gadgets you don’t know how much you need until you try one… and then try living without it! If you find deep pressure massage of very specific points eases your pain or releases stress, this tool might work just as well for you.beastie1

Essentially, the Beastie is a hard rubber, star shaped ball with rounded points. It comes on its own little stand so it won’t readily roll out of position if you use it on the floor. It rolls much less than the common lacrosse ball (about $5) often used for self-massage methods. As a mom in a house with boys, I find the “not a ball” feature alone worth the higher price ($25) of a Beastie—no one picks this up and wanders off tossing it from hand to hand, or tries to start a game of catch inside the house.

The stand has four screw holes, so you could attach it to your wall for use massaging the upper back. I’m very satisfied with just placing the Beastie against the wall and holding it up with my weight, so don’t worry that you’ll need to put holes in your walls. I’ve never noticed it marring any wall, painted or wallpapered, as it rolls.

I used to just apply hard pressure with my fingertips when I felt a headache coming on. This only sometimes proved effective. The arthritis in my fingers now means I simply can’t press hard enough, or hold pressure long enough, for relief without a tool. The jaw, the base of the skull where it meets the neck, the fat pad of my palm—all of these spots and more hold tension that benefits from deep, prolonged pressure.

My worst spot, right under what my husband calls the “chicken wing,” the spot on my back where my arm merges with my shoulder—only a willing friend or professional massage therapist could effectively reach before I found the Beastie ball. This area, so often aggravated by long days at the computer (arms forward) and driving a car (arms forward), was also the weak spot where I developed a herniated disc many years ago, interrupting my career and causing me months of excruciating pain. That experience played a large role in encouraging me to learn simple self-care techniques, like self massage, to help avoid developing any more problems related to our modern “sitting disease.”

I’ve used a few other “trigger point” self massage tools, and I’ve gotten useful information about the technique from a few specific sources. The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook, for example, is really informative and thorough, but I would suggest trying self massage with a Beastie (or a lacrosse ball!) for a while to see if the technique helps you before investing more money or time in this much theory. It also isn’t the first book I’d recommend on the topic.

I can’t say enough about the Trigger Point Performance instructional booklet ($25) that got me started on this journey. My only complaint about their products is price. Their version of the simple lacrosse ball roller is $20, but, unlike the Beastie’s “fingers” that really dig deep, I don’t see any improvement in functionality with the TP Massage Ball.

I don’t regret paying for my “Trigger Point Performance Ultimate 6 Total Body Self Myofascial Release and Deep Tissue Massage Kit” (similar to this current set for $80), but I wouldn’t replace every item if my originals were lost or wore out. I would replace the booklet and do the exercises with a standard foam roller, a yoga block, and my Beastie ball.Trigger Point2

I’ve got a RumbleRoller ORIGINAL (blue) in the Compact (13 inch) size. I tend to work on one side of the body at a time, and I’m also just a medium sized woman, so the ease of storing the shorter roller made this the best option for me. I use this on the carpeted floor of the room where I exercise, but it’s too bulky to take out all the time. It’s not attractive enough to leave out in my family room. If I feel a headache coming on in the middle of the day, I’m at my desk or in the car, and the RumbleRoller won’t be where I need it. It also requires a wide open space to roll on it for best effect.

The little Beastie is about the size of a baseball on a display stand. I keep it on a shelf near the TV, one room away from my desk in our workroom. If I’m driving around a lot, I throw the Beastie ball, minus the stand, in my tote bag along with my water and snacks. It’s completely, conveniently portable.

Trigger Point1I can use the Beastie with just hand pressure any time, or against the leather upholstery in my car’s seat or the padded surface of the sofa for light pressure. I can usually find an empty stretch of wall in any room if I want to get deeper pressure by leaning against it for my upper body; sometimes I use it on the floor where the full force of gravity makes the pressure even stronger. It’s easy to keep the Beastie handy, so I use it a lot, and that makes my life less painful.

Headaches were a frequent fact of life in my teens and young adulthood. I was a computer geek from way back, and the old CRT monitors were barely tolerable for  constant use. Both reading (head bent over book) and computer usage (CRT flicker, squinting, bad ergonomics)—activities that consumed most of my waking hours—led to poor posture and muscle tension. Fluorescent tube lighting (flicker again!) in classrooms and offices just added to my woes. My headaches are even triggered by the “stripes” of light that come in through Venetian window blinds.

Unfortunately for me, tension headaches often segue into migraines if I don’t immediately stop the trigger—usually manageable these days as a stay-at-home mom, but almost always impossible as a student or office employee.

I wish I’d had a Beastie years ago. It would have saved me from a lot of pain without requiring a total lifestyle revision. Perhaps it could do the same for you?