1.5 million people in the U.S. suffer from a traumatic brain injury (TBI) each year, and currently more than 5.3 million people are living with disabilities caused by TBI. When you’ve had an injury to the brain, basic brain functions can be affected, making things that used to be second nature, like speech, memory, reading, writing and attention, difficult. With the holidays approaching, and travel to see loved ones on the schedule, you might be wondering how to navigate the formerly second-nature aspects of travel like trip-planning, driving, and flying. In this post, we provide helpful tips to make holiday travel a little easier.
Because our brains are so complex, depending on how the injury occurred, each individual’s experience living with brain injury is different. Basically, when you suffer a traumatic incident to the brain, basic brain functions are impacted – like speech, problem-solving, memory, focus, and attention – making the normal activities of daily life more difficult.
Traveling with ease is probably one of those activities you’ve taken for granted your entire life and now it may seem more daunting. In fact, travel is stressful to many, even without an health issue, and with a TBI, an extra layer of complication is added. Given the symptoms of TBI, travel by plane, train, bus or car can exacerbate these struggles. However, there are steps you can take to make the trip a little easier. Keep these tips in mind as you plan your holiday travel.
You should always start by checking with your doctor or clinician before taking a trip after your brain injury. He or she can advise you of potential health issues or risks and how to deal with them.
Tips For Trip Planning
1. Planning Makes Perfect: It is important to plan out the details of your trip in advance so you can anticipate any problems. Make sure to add downtime into your schedule as rest is critical to recovery. You may find keeping a checklist helps to remember what to do next, as will writing down names, trip routes, addresses, and flight numbers in a central place in advance. Alert family members or friends before you leave that you will need extra patience on their part. Finally, ensure you pack all medications and any other health-related needs, and set alarms on your phone to tell you when to take medications – you might get distracted and an alarm will ensure you don’t miss anything.
2. Stick To Routine: As much as possible, keep to your regular routine. This may be hard to do while in flight or on the road, but once at your destination, try to get back to your schedule. Routines provide structure to each day, and help reduce anxiety and stress.
3. Reduce Sensory Overload: After a brain injury, symptoms like getting easily distracted, light and noise sensitivity, memory problems, irritability, and dizziness could lead to some anxiety or feeling overwhelmed. Plan coping strategies in advance, such as listening to soothing music with your headphones, chewing gum or sucking on mints, removing yourself to a quiet corner if possible, or applying deep pressure (press your hands firmly together or wrap your arms in a hug).
Tips For Flying
1. Check With Your Medical Provider Before You Fly: Some survivors report that cabin pressure, turbulence, and the lighting on airplanes heightens TBI symptoms. Changes in pressure and decrease of oxygen concentration may also increase the likelihood of headaches, fatigue, and nausea. Your medical provider will let you know whether you are approved to fly and if so, what can be done to reduce any medical side effects.
2. Eat & Drink Healthy While In The Air: Stay hydrated, as water intake–or lack thereof–can influence cognitive functioning. Avoid alcoholic beverages. Bring your own healthy snacks like fresh or dried fruit, nuts, granola or protein bars (all of which are allowed in your carry-on bag by the major airlines).
3. Take Advantage Of The Air Carriers Access Act Which Protects Individuals With Disabilities: For example, preferential seating might be helpful to you (be sure and request 48 hours before your flight). And let airlines know in advance if special medical equipment, like a wheelchair, will be needed during the flight. Most of all, ask for help if you need it. For example, if you are struggling with reading signage at the airport or on the plane, or having trouble boarding, don’t be afraid to ask for assistance.
4. Limit Distractions & Get Plenty Of Rest: Avoid multitasking. If you’re listening to music, avoid also playing a game on your phone or reading a book–your concentration and recovery may suffer if you do too much at once. Try to sleep or rest your eyes during the flight. This may mean wearing a sleep mask, dark sunglasses, or noise-cancelling headphones.
Tips For Car Or Bus Travel1. Plan For Frequent Stops: Going on a road trip in a car or bus can be an overly stimulating experience with the constant motion, close quarters, and feelings of restlessness. Remember your coping strategies for avoiding anxiety, and plan to give yourself breaks by stopping every hour or two if you can. Even closing your eyes in a parking lot for a few minutes can feel refreshing.
2. Avoid Reading Or Looking At Your Phone While The Car Or Bus Is In Motion: If you are prone to motion sickness, reading is a common cause, and usually manifests as spatial disorientation and nausea. If you are the passenger on a bus or car, it's better to listen to relaxing music on your headphones, and if watching the scenery pass by causes motion sickness, close your eyes. Consider a car neck pillow to facilitate further relaxation.
Whether you are traveling by car or plane, once you reach your destination, find a quiet, non-distracting environment as soon as you can, where you can rest and recharge your brain. Remember to stay hydrated, eat well and take frequent breaks. These tips will hopefully allow you to enjoy your holidays with loved ones.
- Centers for Disease Control, 2018. Traumatic Brain Injury & Concussion
- Sebastian Bao Dinh Bui, Torben Petersen, et al. 2016. Headaches attributed to airplane travel: a Danish survey, Journal Headache Pain. 2016; 17: 33.
- Taneal A Wiseman, Kate Curtis, et al. 2015. Incidence of depression, anxiety and stress following traumatic injury: a longitudinal study, Journal Trauma Resusc Emerg Med. 2015; 23: 29.
- Barry M. Popkin, Kristen E. D’Anci, et al. 2011. Water, Hydration and Health, Nutr Rev. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2011 Aug 1.