I do not remember when exactly I was told. I believe it was several years after actually being diagnosed with lymphedema. Despite the fact that my physiotherapists and doctors knew I was travelling all the time. However, when I was finally properly informed, the message from the lymphedema specialists was clear: Flying is not good for my lymphedema and it will most likely worsen my edema, no matter the frequency.
But as with anything else relating to my lymphedema, I believe in trying things out. See what happens. And then act on the basis of the consequences of those tests.
That is what this article is all about. The purpose of the article is to shed some light on what flying physically does to ones lymphedema and how you can try to minimize the negative influence flying abroad can have on your edema. Cause lymphedema does not necessarily have to hold you back from living a life as an explorer. However, it is important for me to stress that every lymphedema is different. That means that you should always try things out for yourself to experience to consequences regarding your own edema; some lymphedemas might reacht much worse on flying than mine for example does and in those cases you will probably have to accept that it will not be healthy for you to go flying on a monthly basis.
But following the tips and tricks described in this article makes it possible for me to fly regurlarly without it troubleling my lymphedema. It is my hope that the tricks might be usuful for others as well and might contribute to others being able to continue to explore the world despite them having lymphedema. So here it goes; this is how I manage to be able to keep flying, flying away!
WHAT DOES FLYING DO TO YOUR LYMPHEDEMA?
The cabin pressure in an airplane is less than the pressure we are subject to when we run around down here on the ground. The low pressure in the airplane results in a decrease of the movement of lymph fluid and the fluid will thereby remain in the area/body part where you have lymphedema. In my case the legs.
That is why flying is subject to a bit of skepticisme from lymphedema specialists; because flying will most likely cause increased swelling in the limb with lymphedema. In some cases flying is also thought to actually cause lymphedema for people who are in the risk of developing this condition (for example a woman who has just had all her nodes in her armpit surgically removed as a result of cancer treatment and thereby is at risk of developing lymphedema in her arm).
When I tell my doctor – who is the top lymphedema specialist in Denmark – that I am going travelling, he always asks whereto. And since I normally reply with a destination within Europe, he usually says: “Well, quite alright then, that is not that long a flight.”
I understand this response as him thinking that the shorter the flight, the less negative influence on my lymphedema. That also seems to make sense, since the shorter time you are subject to less natural pressure, the shorter time your lymphedema will be challenged as a result of that lower pressure. But that also means that if I am going on longer flights (more than 2 and a half hour), I have to make sure to take extra precautions to reduce the risk of significantly worsening my lympedema by flying.
WHAT CAN YOU DO TO TAKE CARE OF YOUR LYMPHEDEMA WHEN YOU GO FLYING?
Down below I have listed the advices I have gotten from doctors and lymphedema specialists throughout the years and things I myself have found out works well. These tricks and tips work for me, so you can try them out and see if they work for you as well.
When you book your airplane ticket and before you board the plane there are a few things you can do to minimize the risk of your lymphedema reacting badly to the flight.
Booking the plane ticket: When you book the ticket for the flight, if you have the possibility for it, book a seat with more room for your legs, if you have lymphedema in your lower extremities. Sitting in an uncomfortable, tight position with not enough room to stretch your legs might result in aching and increased swelling.
Wear that compression garment: The most important thing to do when you go travel with lymphedema is to put on your compression garment. Compression and pressure is essential to keep your lymphedema in chess. The pressure provided from your compression garment is the key to not accumulate a lot of fluid in your tissue.
Wear loose fitting clothes: It can be a really good idea to wear clothes that is not tightly fit on your body. A pair of tight jeans on a lymphie leg will – besides being generally very uncomfortable – lessen the flow of your lymph fluid even more. The negative effect of the jeans can be even worse when you are flying, plus it can result in very uncomfortable aching.
Consider wearing bandages: It is always a good idea to apply extra compression on the areas where you have lymphedema. So consider bandaging your legs, arm etc. just before getting on the plane. Do not take of the bandages before you reach your destination. It can also be a good idea to keep the bandages on for a few hours after landing.
Bring your lymphedema gear: I always bring at least a bit of my lymphedema gear when I travel. This gear might be useful in relation to your every day life, but it will be even more beneficial to your lymphedema as a follow-up on an airplane flight. For example, you can bring:
1. Your night bandages. I usually bring my Jovipak along on trips abroad, because the night bandage can better my lymphedema significantly after a plane ride.
2. If you did not put bandages on before your flight, it can be a good idea to bring some in your luggage. You do not have to wear it when you are walking around exploring new cities and beaches, but you can put it on a few hours a night after being out. That way you get extra pressure on your lymphedema limb, which might reduce the induced swelling related to the air flight travelling.
3. Your compression pump. If you have a compression pump, for example a Lymphapress, you can consider bringing it abroad with you. Most people bring it in their hand luggage, but I would recommend that you discuss this with the flight company before showing up at the airport. It is wise to bring some kind of certificate from the company who produces the compression pump stating what kind of equipment the pump is. In that way you will not risk having the pump detained because the flight crew fear that the pump might endanger security aboard the plane.
Bring penicillin: You should always have your doctor prescribe you some “in case of erysipelas/cellulitis infection”-medication before travelling! Bring this penicillin in your hand luggage in case your suitcase does not make it to your destination. If you travel outside the EU (or from the EU and to a country outside the EU), you sometimes need to bring documentation from your local pharmacy or such stating that you are allowed to carry this medication and that it is essential to your health. Ask you doctor if this documentation is needed for the specific trip you are taking. This documentation is normally not necessary when you are travelling within the EU. If you wish, you can read more about the infection and the relevant precautions here.
Reduce your salt intake: Some doctors also recommend that you reduce your salt intake in the hours before flying. This is a question of salt being able to cause the body to retain more fluid than it would normally do. You can thereby risk increasing the swelling in your lymphedema limb if you eat food containing a lot of salt before getting on the airplane.
While being on the plane
It would be natural to think that you cannot do much to help your lymph fluid on its way when you are captivated in an airplane several miles above the ground. But you can actually influence the situation of your lymphedema quite a lot by using a few tricks:
Move around: It is a good idea to move around when you go flying. That means getting off your seat and walk around a bit in the cabin. This will get your muscles moving and you thereby contribute to the “pumping” of lymph fluids.
Pumping exercises: I often do a bit of venous pumping exercises while being seated. This way I can contribute to the lymph fluid flowing a bit better despite the low pressure in the cabin. The even better version of this is to get of from the seat, turn towards the back of your seat, grab the back of your seat with your hands and do venous pumping exercises while standing up in front of your seat. This can easily been done several times during the flight, does not require you to move away from your seat and really gets your fluids flowing.
When you arrive at your destination
In my case taking care of my lymphedema does not end when I get off the plane. It continues all the way through my stay abroad, because my experiences have taught me that this is the only right way to go if I want to avoid worsening my lymphedema by travelling a lot.
This being said, sometimes I have a one-day work-related meeting in Brussels and I therefore do not have to spend the night at a foreign destination. In those cases I still stick to my travelling routines; I will just be doing them when I get back to Denmark in the evening instead of having done them abroad.
I usually do two things being abroad, after having flown:
Goodnight yoga: I always, always, always do a bit of yoga in the hotel room (or outside if possible). Even if I am very tired or have gotten back to the hotel quite late. 10-15 minutes of yoga does a great deal for my lymphedema and I believe it to be the main contributor to my lymphedema not acting out after flying. The yoga stimulates my lymphatic flow like no other exercises. That is why I always prioritize finding room for my yoga mat in the suitcase.
Night bandages: I usually wear night bandages being abroad. However, in some destinations or hotels it is simply too warm to sleep with my Jovipak. And not getting sufficient sleep will make my lymphedema act much more out than not wearing night bandages. I therefore consider the night bandages to be a “good way to go”, but acknowledge that it is not always possible for me to wear them.
When you get back home from travelling
If I should give one piece of advice on what to do when you get back home from travelling, it would be to get a great night’s sleep. No getting up early and having to run hundred errands the next day.
Throughout the years I have learned that getting a really good night’s sleep when getting back from a business trip or a vacation can have an enormous impact on the state of my lymphedema. In some cases my lymphedema is even better than when I left home in the first place because I let myself get the sleep I need. That is why I prioritize “sleeping it out” whenever I return home after flying. You can read more about the connection between sleep and the state of your lymphedema here.
Besides this, it can be a good idea to do a bit of exercise the day after you have come home. Go for a 5 minute-run, go for a long fast-pace walk, do 45 minutes of yoga. Anything that will help your lymphatic flow increase and thereby minimize the effects of flying and being abroad in general.
LET’S TAKE OFF IN THE BLUE
Lymphedema is a game changer when it comes to flying. That is something that I cannot – and will not – deny.
But I believe that I, despite my lymphedema, can still travel the world, experience new cultures and soak the amazing sights to me. I will of course need to adapt to my situation and do a few extra things to take care of my edema.
In the spring of 2018 I got a job offer. It was for my dream position. In an international division working with EU-law. Accepting the job would not only entail getting to work within the legal field I love the most, but also that I would have to travel quite a lot. This consideration only went through my head for a second and then I tossed it aside. I was not going to let my lymphedema withhold me from my dream job – and be controlled by fear of what consequences the travelling part of the job would have in relation to my condition. That is simply not my way of thinking. Instead I decided to try it out. See what happened. It might not be an issue if I take the right precautions, like taking the necessary time to do yoga in the hotel room despite being abroad in unexplored, beautiful cities.
So far travelling more in my new job has not caused me any troubles. I manage to work in my dream position and still have my lymphedema under control.
That is why I am a big believer in trying things out and see if it is possible to combine certain activities with having lymphedema.
Now there is nothing else left to say than I hope this article will help you to take off into the blue, preferably in a seat with extra room for your lymphie limb and perhaps with that well-sounding jazz music of Frank Sinitra in your headset, for example the cheerful “Come fly with me”.
Have a great flight!
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