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Road Trippin' Without Leg Pain and Fatigue

Long drives and cramped flights lead to leg aches and pains. Take care of your lower limbs to reach your summer travel destination ready to tackle your itinerary.


Couple in a car, traveling with their windows down during a sunsetWinter is over and summer is here. You finally feel like you can safely travel again. You’re ready to experience everything Iowa has to offer or head off on a summer vacation. And that can make for long stretches stuck in a seat.

The time in the car or on a plane never appears in your vacation photo album. But depending on your destination, it can make up a significant portion of your trip. Those extended hours in a seat can be mentally and physically draining. Painful even.

I’m just sitting. Why does traveling make my legs hurt?

You’re not doing anything, so your legs should feel fine, right? Well, physically you’re just sitting there. But inside your body, your veins are working harder than normal.

All that seat time causes blood to pool up in your lower legs. This puts more pressure on the veins and leads to swelling. You might experience the symptoms early on in the trip or not until after you’ve arrived. Achy, tight or tender muscles in the your lower legs and thighs are the most obvious signs. Sometimes, the surface of the skin is red and feels warm.

If you love to travel and experience these symptoms on every trip, you could be at risk of developing deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a condition that results from blood clots developing in the deep veins of your legs.

Never heard of it. What’s deep vein thrombosis?

It’s not good. DVT is a potentially life-threatening condition. Pain that is concentrated in one leg or lingers long after your travels are over are signs you may have deep vein thrombosis.

Inactivity, and anything else that prevents your blood from circulating, can lead to DVT blood clots. If the blood clots move from your legs to your lungs, they can block your pulmonary arteries. Without proper blood flow to your lungs, you have trouble breathing, cough up blood and get chest pains that feel like a heart attack. If you don’t get medical attention right away, you might die.

Sitting in a cramped car or airplane cabin can also cause varicose veins, those twisted blue and purple cords that appear on your legs. New research from the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that people with varicose veins have a higher risk of developing DVT.

Varicose veins themselves can be painful, especially during travel. But up until now, they were just an uncomfortable, unsightly issue with no serious health consequences. With the association to DVT found in this new study, it’s critical you take the proper precautions when traveling if you have these conditions or are at an increased risk of developing them.

How do I prevent leg pain and fatigue from turning into DVT?

Move. As often as you can.

All these issues stem from sitting for long spells, so getting out of your seat is the most important thing you can do. On the road, stop every couple hours. Get out and walk around at each pit stop, gas fill-up and potty break. It’s harder in the air because you’re sharing a confined space with dozens of other passengers. But you can still move about the cabin when it’s okay to do so.

You can also stay active in your passenger seat. Raise your feet. Lift your knees. Clench your toes. Flex and rotate your ankles. If you have enough leg room or are in an aisle seat, stretch your legs for a couple minutes. All this helps keep the blood flowing and prevents it from pooling and forming clots.

Dress for travel.

A lot of travelers dress for comfort. Flip-flops, tank tops and yoga pants are the norm. To fight leg pain and fatigue, you want loose-fitting garb. Tight clothing can hinder circulation — the number one thing you need for long trips.

The exception to the loose clothing rule is medical compression stockings. These use graduated pressure and support blood flow from the ankle up to the knee. Your calf muscles are like a milking machine for your veins, moving blood back up to the heart. By exerting pressure on your calves, compression stockings help relieve the pressure inside your veins and pump blood up and out of your legs. This reduces the throbbing pain, cramping and fatigue of summer travel, while also helping prevent blood clots from forming.

Don’t sit after you arrive.

The hours of travel can add up no matter what you do. And if your legs hurt or are just tired, the last thing you want to do after reaching your destination is exercise. But a brisk walk or light activity gets your blood flowing again. In the airport, forgo the conveyor belts and escalators and actually use your legs. If you go by car, walk around and explore the area a little bit before settling in.

If you do need to take a seat, give your veins a break by elevating your legs above your heart. They no longer have to fight gravity to pump blood back to the heart. Sitting or laying down with your legs elevated relieves the pressure on your veins and eases the pain of varicose veins. Put a folded blanket between the mattress and box spring at the foot of the bed to elevate your ankles three to four inches above you hips.

Travel is exhausting. Especially for your legs. Keep the blood moving all the way to your summer travel spot so you can enjoy your vacation and avoid varicose veins and DVT. Elevation, movement and support stockings can reduce your leg and vein pain. If you have bad veins, talk to a doctor and consider taking 81 grams of aspirin per day to help prevent blood clots. But If it still hurts to travel, visit a vascular surgeon for an assessment and advice.

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