So you’re thinking of going to the beach? Good! It’s an awesome idea. But before you book your vacation ticket, there are a few things you need to get right if you’ve got chronic pain and want to handle a trip successfully.
I love the beach and it’s a passion that I share with my whole family (which explains why my name is Marina). However, from when I was diagnosed with CRPS 10 years ago and was left wheelchair-bound – even I had to question whether a beach holiday was worth the hassle.
The thought of dragging a wheelchair through the sand or needing to leave the minute I arrived because I was too hot, tired or sore – it put me off the idea altogether.
However, this wasn’t a long term solution. I wasn’t ready to give up my favourite place in the world. And if you enjoy the beach too – you should not give it up either.
There are just a few adjustments you’re going to have to make for it to be an enjoyable experience. To handle chronic pain and the beach you need to:
- Choose your destination carefully;
- Pack for the day wisely;
- Be realistic about your itinerary;
- Make your trip as comfortable as possible;
- Go with someone you trust;
- Get into the water if you can; and
- Use the time to rest.
Now I’m going to show you exactly how to do this with as many tips and tricks as possible.
Choose Your Destination Carefully
When you plan your seaside holiday you should take the quality of the local beaches into consideration. Every country has its own regulations and guidelines – so do your research before you go.
You should look for beaches that are well equipped with the following things nearby:
- Relatively easy parking, especially for disability;
- Proper bathroom facilities;
- A restaurant or cafe that sells water and other necessities;
- Proper stairs to get onto the beach;
- Wheelchair ramps;
- Chair and umbrella rentals; and
- Properly shaded areas.
Ideally, the type of beach you visit you should also look for beaches that are sandy and flat as they are the easiest to walk on. Especially if someone needs to carry you or assist you as you move.
If you are in a wheelchair – please don’t be discouraged like I was. You can still go to the beach and enjoy it! But planning the destination needs to be your top priority if the trip is going to be successful.
Many beaches around the world now cater to people who need to use this aid and still wants to swim, so the trick is in finding out where they are.
I would even go as far as to suggest that your holiday gets planned around a wheelchair friendly beach spot if it’s possible. Not only because you will be able to make use of the beach, but because you may find the location is more wheelchair-friendly overall.
Two things a wheelchair-friendly beach must have:
Ramps that go across the beach
And gently descend into still seawater. If you haven’t seen or heard about this yet then it looks exactly as it sounds.
These beaches have customised ramps that are either equipped with built-in, waterproof wheelchairs or are designed to accommodate your own waterproof wheelchair. You can then be gently pushed until your feet or legs touch the water.
Rentable beach wheelchairs
Beach wheelchairs are designed with much broader tyres or wheels that carry you over the sandy shores easily. They’re also made from PVC so that they do not get damaged when you use them in the water.
Yes, you can buy a beach wheelchair – it is an option. However, they are quite expensive. So unless you live by the beach and go regularly, I would suggest renting one for the time you’re there instead.
Make Your Trip as Comfortable as Possible
There’s nothing wrong with spontaneity. But when your mobility is limited by chronic pain then there are certain things about a beach day that you just can’t wing. One of those things is what you choose to pack.
What you pack can stop you from making emergency runs to the beach shop or restaurant to try and find what you need. But most importantly it’ll help you feel comfortable on the beach for a longer period so that you can get the most out of your day.
Pack for the Day Wisely
Here are 6 chronic-pain essentials that I never go to the beach:
Flip flops with a supportive heel strap or EVA Birkenstocks
– both are waterproof so they won’t get damaged when you use them.
I try to avoid standard flip flops because they provide very little foot support and make it easy to slip or lose your stability. Not to mention the minute you get on the sand – you need to take them off anyway.
An insulative flask to keep your water cold
I like to use a flask because it is built for portable use. Hydration is important by any standard. But if you have chronic pain and take a lot of medication – it becomes imperative.
I suffer from dry mouth, bladder problems and kidney problems. So I cannot risk going to the beach without it.If you don’t have a flask, you can also put a normal bottle of water in the freezer and bring that instead.
It’ll be hard as a brick when you take it to the beach – but it will melt slowly throughout the day and stay cold instead of fridge water that just becomes hot soup within the first hour.
Cooler bag – for snacks and drinks
If your chronic pain has you on any special diet (sugar-free, gluten-free, dairy-free etc.) then you definitely do not want to risk going to the beach without your own snacks.
I recommend bringing things that keep well in a cooler bag and boost your hydration. Some of my favourite options include:
- Carrot and cucumber sticks;
- Cherry tomatoes (even if I can’t eat them I know they’re a hit);
- Grapefruit or orange slices;
- Cantaloupe or watermelon chunks; and
- Berries – any that you like.
I also recommend bringing some health crackers, sugar-free ice-cream or treats to help you resist the urge to buy junk when everyone else goes to get some.
Beach umbrella, deck chair and cushion
Comfort is key if you have chronic pain. There’s no need to be in any more pain than you already feel – and sitting on the sand is not comfortable whatsoever.
If the beach you visit gives you the option to rent an umbrella deck chair then I recommend doing that instead – it takes a lot less effort than bringing your own.
Otherwise, PLEASE bring your own. This kind of comfort and support has helped me turn a 30-minute painful beach trip into a pleasant 3-hour experience.
If getting into the water is a bit difficult because of your chronic pain then a water spray will help you keep cool and refreshed. I know that swimming can send my nervous system into shock so it is not worth trying to get in the water. But I still need to cool off and this is a great way to do it gently.
There are a couple of ways you can go about this, here are some things I like to use:
Whether you have an autoimmune condition that reacts badly to sunlight, take medication that makes your skin sensitive or if you suffer from a skin-related disorder – protection from the sun is so important.
As I used to work as a beauty editor for a magazine I had the opportunity to learn a lot about skincare – especially from dermatologists and oncologists. Here’s what I can share with you now:
- Invest in a good quality sunscreen that is safe for your skin. Many standard sunscreens use cheaper ingredients that are unfortunately quite toxic and can cause bad skin reactions.
- Ensure your sunscreen has a high SPF and protects you from UVA and UVB rays. A higher SPF does not mean the sunscreen is stronger – it means it will protect you for longer.
- Remember to reapply your sunscreen after your swim – there’s no such thing as waterproof sunscreen!
- Use physical protection such as a hat and beach umbrella – not just sunscreen. This is the safest way to prevent your skin from flaring.
On the sunscreen note – here are 5 of my favourite brands that I recommend to anyone with highly reactive skin:
Get the right beach bag
Before you pack anything into a bag, you should think carefully about the type of beach bag you are going to use.
Ideally, you should go for a bag that is:
- Compartmentalised nicely – the more pockets the better;
- Waterproof; and
- Well sized – avoid anything too big that is difficult to carry.
Some great beach bags that are fitted with a cooler section as well. This is an ideal way to cut down on the amount of bags you have to carry while still having your drinks and snacks handy.
Top tip: If you can get a backpack instead of a standard beach bag, I would highly recommend it. I personally prefer it because it helps:
- Keep your hands free;
- Spread the weight of the bag between your shoulders, avoiding putting unnecessary pressure on one side of your body; and
- Protect and distribute your stuff as comes with the most amount of pockets and compartments.
Be Realistic About Your Itinerary
It can be a little demotivating to get to the beach and see others running through the sand, playing volleyball or body surfing the waves – I know it’s always been hard for me.
But your beach day shouldn’t have to be based on doing a whole bunch of physically draining activities.
As it is – just getting to the beach when you have chronic pain is a win and something you should be proud of.
And what anyone else chooses to do at the beach should not be your main focus. All your attention should be on making sure that you enjoy the time you have there.
You can do this by organising your own ‘itinerary’. And by this, I don’t mean that your need to create a timetable for the day. I’m suggesting that you take some time to think about how you want to keep busy.
If you're trying to process this disappointment at the moment then I recommend giving this article a read as well. It will help you process your emotions using a step-by-step approach: Overcoming Disappointment When You Have a Chronic Illness
Great ways to pass the time at the beach
Embrace your inner child and build a sandcastle.
Yes, this is the first option I had to mention…
It’s physical enough to keep you busy without being too draining. You can always stop when you’re tired and rest.
It’s social enough to help you do something with your significant other or family and feel included in the group activities.
And it is also fun enough to make you feel youthful and free-spirited.
Bring a book or a few magazines.
Reading at the beach can be a sweaty and blinding experience if you don’t have the right equipment. One thing that will make it a lot easier is if you have a deck chair.
Try to find a deckchair that either has a canopy or a hole for your head when you want to lie on your stomach. It will help you feel far more comfortable while you read.
Listen to audiobooks.
If reading is not your thing then you can always download a couple of audiobooks onto your phone and listen to your book instead.
I personally love doing this, especially if the heat from the beach is triggering brain fog and blurred vision. It’s easy to follow and you can immerse yourself into the story for a few hours.
Start a crafts project.
If you’re a creative person, like me, then getting engrossed in a crafts project can help you enjoy your experience at the beach a whole lot more. And, even better, it can distract you from the pain for a bit.
Here are my three favourite things to do:
Find lots of seashells and use them to fill a bathroom vase for decoration. You can use it to hold candles.
Collect unique seashells for wall decor. It looks very professional and it’s not too hard to do.
Make small favours or souvenir gifts by decorating flat pebbles and white shells. This is a fun and easy activity – it always looks cute and comes from the heart.
Plan a group picnic.
If you are a very social person and do not want to feel left out of beach activities when your chronic pain limits your movements – plan a picnic.
I can assure you that when there’s food – people will come! A proper beach picnic is a wholesome way to spend time with a group of friends or family without much physical exertion at all.
Just make sure you pack foods that are easy to prepare.
Go with Someone You Trust
I cannot reinforce this statement enough – Don’t be scared to ask for help. Don’t go to the beach alone or with an unreliable group.
If you’re feeling anxious about your beach trip and you’re not familiar with your surroundings – it is best to go with your significant other or anyone that you trust implicitly.
This is not the time or place to test how far you can push your body’s abilities. The danger you can put yourself in if anything goes wrong is quite serious.
I’ve personally never attempted to go to the beach alone. My legs are greatly affected by chronic pain and trying to brace a sandy beach without support is not worth my while.
A few years ago, I decided to go grocery shopping on my own during a bad flare. Unfortunately, the floor was a bit wet and I ended up losing balance on my crutches and falling.
My leg got beaten up pretty badly in the process and I was left in tears on the floor in severe pain.
No one quite knew what to do, how to help me or if they even should help me. A whole bunch of people just walked passed and pretended not to see me at all.
It was a traumatic experience that I hope to never relive. Since then I’ve been a lot more honest in asking for help when I need it. It is not a weakness to look out for yourself.
And if you are struggling with chronic pain – the beach is one place you definitely could use some help to enjoy the experience.
Get Into the Water if You Can
It’s not necessary to get into the water if you don’t want to or if you can’t. That is one of the reasons why I like to bring a spray bottle of water with me to the beach – I definitely can’t get into the water all the time either.
But if your doctor gives you the go-ahead and your body is feeling strong then I highly recommend it.
Moving in the water is a low-impact form of exercise that holds your weight. Physically, it can help:
- Alleviate joint and muscle pain;
- Strengthen muscles;
- Increase range of motion in joints;
- Reduce inflammation;
- Boost your circulation; and
- Strengthen your bones.
Another added benefit is that if you get your heart rate going – it can also help alleviate brain fog, improve your brain function and prevent the development of any further chronic illnesses.
Finally, the benefits of swimming extend far beyond your physical health – they make a big difference to your mental health too.
If you have fibromyalgia, research shows that swimming and any water therapy can help reduce your anxiety levels; boost your mood and help you manage depression.
But this can be applied to almost anyone – no matter what kind of chronic pain you have or even if you’re perfectly healthy – because of the fact that swimming is a form of aerobic exercise.
Swimming in the Sea vs Hydrotherapy
Any movement you do in the water must be slow and careful. As I’m sure you already know – when you push yourself too hard then it often ends up biting you in the backside.
Another thing to consider is the temperature of the water. If the seawater is very cold it might cause your joints and muscles to tense – which is not what you want at all.
So make sure you feel comfortable with the temperature before you get in. If you feel like it is too cold right in the beginning then don’t push yourself – it’s a sign you should not swim.
If you love swimming but you find the sea is too rough and cold for you – then I highly recommend looking at hydrotherapy.
Hydrotherapy provides you with a safe space where you can submerge yourself in warm water and do controlled exercises with a specialist who will focus on all the areas of your body that need attention.
Use the Time to Rest
Daily life when you have chronic pain is extremely stressful and there’s almost nothing that helps you relax in moments of intense pain. I know this feeling all too well.
But sitting on the beach can help you relinquish some of these frustrations when you feel strong enough to get there – and it’s proven. As a yoga-lover and meditator, the beach has only enhanced these practices for me and here’s why:
- Staring at the ocean is proven to calm you down and put your brain into a meditative state. Apparently, the vastness of the colour blue helps bring out a feeling of peace.
- When you lie down on your deck chair, the sound of the waves and the sand, as well as the soothing visuals actually help activate your parasympathetic nervous system. Which is responsible for slowing you down and helping you relax.
If you have chronic nerve pain or neuralgia (like I do) you will know just how important it is to stabilise your nervous system.
- Once you are in this relaxed state, it is much easier to tune into your breathing, focus on yourself and dive into some meditation.
Some guided meditations I recommend listening to
Twenty minute body scan, UCSD Center for mindfulness
Breath, sounds, body, thoughts, emotions – Mindful Awareness Research Centre, UCLA
Seated meditation – UCSD Center for mindfulness
Otherwise, this is the time to take your earphones out and use your surroundings to help you reach that meditative state. If this is something you want to try then I recommend hitting the beach early in the morning or later in the afternoon, when it is quieter.
You can also do some basic yoga if you like, but I recommend doing this at home if your chronic pain is bad. It would be more ideal to have a stable, flat surface to work on.
And there you have it! Everything you need to know about handling the beach when you have chronic pain.
I hope this motivates you to go get a healthy dose of vitamin D (10 minutes of proper sun exposure is all you need), dip your toes into the seawater and give your body the chance to rest.
If there are any other beach hacks that you would like to share then I would love to hear them! Otherwise, enjoy your time at the beach and feel free to send me a message if you want to share your experience.