Traveling with a herniated disc: 9 tips to ease your back and brain

Traveling with a herniated disc: 9 tips to ease your back and brain

Below are nine tips and suggestions I recommend if you are traveling with a herniated disc or are recovering from back surgery.

As we get older, our style of travel evolves with us. That is fine and totally makes sense. Unfortunately, some of the unpleasant things that come along with getting older, or just living in general, can cause us to adjust our travel. This happened to me a few years ago, when a herniated disc in my back shook up my world. In this post I’ll explain what happened to me and how I have learned to travel with a bad back. 

Background on my herniated disc

To begin with, I hate the term ‘bad back.’ I think on most days, my back is just fine, thank you very much. There are just some days that aren’t so good. Like when we traveled to Belgium for Christmas in 2017. A few days after arriving, my leg started hurting. I didn’t know what was going on, so I pushed through as best I could and when I got home I learned a sore leg was actually back related. Who knew? Anyhow, about 10 months (and some really dark moments) later, I ended up having surgery to relieve some of the pressure and since then I’ve had to adjust my adventures to accommodate traveling with a herniated disc.

So if you are like me (and let’s be honest–half the world) you are going to have to deal with travel with a bad back. Here are my tips and suggestions that I’ve learned that make life a little easier.

Tips to traveling with a herniated disc

1. Bring a sherpa

This is the ideal-world suggestion. But, unfortunately, being a single gal means you don’t have a hunky man schlepping your bag around. Until you get one, you might have to scratch this suggestion.

I will say that six weeks after my surgery I was still on doctor’s order not to life over five pounds. This is where your charitable travel buddy comes in handy. Normally B is not going to carry my crap around. But in special circumstances she was more than willing to lend a hand. So make sure you travel with good people. 

2. Graduate from being a backpacker

Just like I no longer will frequent youth hostiles, my days as a 20-something backpacker are long behind me. And I’m okay with that. I do like the convenience of a convertible backpack on wheels, such as my Osprey or B’s Eagle Creek, but I really only use the back pack conversion part on cobblestone or in other tricky situations. Other than that, it’s all wheels, all the time, baby. 

rolling backpack eagle creek
Ain’t no shame in rolling a backpack.

3. Stand up on the plane

Be that person on a long flight, the person that when you were younger you would make fun of. The person who gets up every two hours and does an odd assortment of stretches and leg lifts and walks around the cabin. If you are going to be that person, it is very helpful to make sure you have an end seat. It would be super annoying if strangers had to get up for you every two hours to move around.

4. Use back cushions

The lumbar support on plane seats is TERRIBLE. To compensate, I like to use the pillow the airlines hand out and shove that thing right down to the small of my back. You can really use anything for this purpose; I’ve used jackets, scarves, blankets, even a water bottle when I was in a pinch. Anything that helps your back not curve the opposite way it is supposed to will help with not exacerbating the situation when you travel with a bad back.

I’ve recently experimented with a memory foam pillow on a trip to Austria. I have the COOP pillow and didn’t use all of my memory foam. I saved this and used it as a make shift pillow on my trip. The memory foam compresses so it didn’t take up much room and I was sure I would have an extra pillow to allow me to use the pillow the hotel provided between my knees for extra support. 

Memory foam pillow is a must for traveling with a herniated disc
My make shift travel pillow compresses to not take up too much space.

5. Chillax

The Christmas B and I spent in Germany was one of the most relaxed vacations I’ve had in years. We knew I wasn’t going to exactly be in fighting form post-surgery, so we didn’t plan anything. We had two home bases and took mini trips when we felt like it and stayed at home when we didn’t. And you know what? It was glorious. I’ve learned you don’t always have to go, go, go to be successful on a trip. So instead of trying to cram in one more museum, maybe go get a cup of hot chocolate at a cafe and watch the world go by. 

Relaxing on a couch
Relaxing on a vacation. Who would have guessed?

6. Stretch

Hopefully when you are on a trip you’ll be able to get a little exercise walking around the sites. But it is a good idea to try to stay limber with some stretches once you get back to your hotel. It is also very important to not go on vacation from your physical therapy when you are on vacation. There are lots of exercises and stretches you can do that don’t require any equipment or dumb bells or what not. If you must bring something, how about an elastic band? I’ve recently learned you can do a full body pilates workout using just that. And that a towel makes a fine yoga mat. 

Yoga strap and elastic band are great tools to pack when traveling with a herniated disc
Yoga straps and elastic bands don’t take up much space but can give you a big ol’ stretch.

7. Mentally prepare

One of the worst parts about my whole back situation was not actually related to my body. It is all in my head, friends, and something I still struggle with (and probably always will). I worry a lot about whether my issue is going to come back and what I will do if it happens when I am on a trip. I’ve worked with a counselor to come up with strategies that have helped me.

8. Plan it out

Before I go on trips now I research the medical situation in a destination. I read about what types of facilities there are and develop a plan for what I could do if the worst happens. This includes looking up the locations and hours of hospitals and writing that information down. Now, I know that I could just as easily find the same information about a hospital’s address while I was in the country. But the process of researching and writing it down makes me feel prepared and like I have a little bit of control.

9. Get travel insurance

I think there are different scenarios for when travel insurance makes sense. It all comes down to a cost-benefit analysis of how much risk is acceptable to you for the price. When B and I have gone on the same trip and spent the same amount of money booking flights and hotels, I have purchased insurance and she has not. The difference is now that I have had to cancel a trip due to my back, it sometimes makes me feel better to know that I have a security blanket for the looming ‘what-if’ question. 

Conclusion to traveling with a herniated disc

I wish I could say having surgery cured me of all my issues and that I didn’t have to think about my back problems ever again. But I can’t and so I have the option of 1) never going anywhere again or 2) adapting travel to fit my new reality. I fall solidly in the 2nd option camp and with some adjustments, traveling with a herniated disc isn’t all that bad.  

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