If you have ankylosing spondylitis (AS), a form of arthritis that primarily affects the spine, you may experience occasional (or frequent) bouts of pain and stiffness that can make it difficult to walk.
Going out in public — to the grocery store or work, for example — can present its own set of challenges. When you are outside your home, you don’t have control of your environment. You may have to climb a set of stairs or maneuver through a narrow aisle, which can aggravate your symptoms and trigger some discomfort.
Still, there are ways to make public outings more comfortable. Here’s how to navigate your way through five public places — plus ways to get around more comfortably.
5 Ways to Navigate Public Outings
Before you go out in public, it helps to do your homework and make a plan. Here are five ways to do that.
- Check the weather. Try to avoid walking, especially on roads and sidewalks, during wet, slippery, or icy conditions.
- Give yourself extra time. If you’re rushing, you may be more likely to stumble or injure yourself.
- Use a mobility device. A walker, cane, scooter, or wheelchair can help you get around easier. While you may be hesitant to use a device, for fear of being stigmatized, the most important thing is to stay engaged with others, says Karen Jacobs, EdD, an occupational therapist and clinical professor in the department of occupational therapy at Boston University. That may mean using a device.
- Ask a friend to come with you. An extra person can help support you if any unexpected obstacles arise. They can also help advocate for your needs.
- Ask your physician or occupational therapist (OT) for advice. If you go to places regularly, such as work or the grocery store, ask your doctor or OT for tips you can use to make the journey easier.
5 Public Places You May Have Trouble Navigating if You Have AS
Public Place #1: Restaurant
Eating out is a great social experience, and best of all, you don’t have to do the dishes afterward. But going to — and sitting in — a restaurant can pose problems for people with AS.
- Try to avoid restaurants with stairs. Call and ask if the restaurant has ramps or alternative ways to get to other floors. Having someone help you up the stairs can also make it easier to get where you need to go once you reach your floor.
- Ask for more comfortable seating. Can’t sit in a hard wooden booth for long stretches of a time? Ask for a padded chair or to be seated at a more comfortable location.
- Avoid a long wait time. Go to the restaurant during their slow times to avoid having to wait a long time for your food. Or try ordering your meal ahead of time (or right when you’re seated).
- Make sure there are accessible bathrooms. Ask the waitstaff in advance where the restrooms are — or ask to be seated near them — so you can access them easily.
Public Place #2: Public Transportation
If you have AS, it can be hard to stay seated for long periods in a confined space.
- On an airplane, try to check as many bags as possible. The Spondylitis Association of America recommends this so you don’t have to carry your bags with you and maneuver them into an overhead compartment or under your seat.
- Use airline transportation services. Ask airport service to drive you to your gate and ask the airline if you can board ahead of time, so you have time and room to settle in.
- Stay hydrated (especially on a flight). The cabin in an airplane can be very dry, so consider buying a bottle of water at the airport to bring with you.
- Take frequent walking breaks. Every so often, try to stand up and stretch your limbs to help prevent stiffness.
- Board at accessible stops. If you live in a city, you may have to go up or down a set of stairs to reach a bus or subway stop. Try to scout out stops ahead of time so you can avoid any obstacles. You can also do a trial run with your OT, who can help you navigate your commute more easily.
- Talk to your driver or train conductor. If your driver or train conductor is within speaking distance of you, tell them that you may need a little extra time getting off. Try, too, to sit near the doors or in other accessible seating whenever possible. “On a recent trip in New York City, I saw someone at a train station ask for help boarding,” Jacobs recalls. “A transit employee escorted them to an elevator and let them board early. Don’t be shy about asking for help.”
- Know your limits. “Be aware of what you can do and cannot do,” says Nilanjana Bose, MD, a rheumatologist at Lonestar Rheumatology in Houston. If you have trouble sitting or standing for a long time, try to limit the time you have to spend on each leg of your trip. For extended periods of travel, she also recommends taking a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) ahead of time to head off discomfort.
Public Place #3: Movie Theaters
Going out to see a movie on a big screen is a treat, but it can be hard to sit in a theater for two hours or longer.
- Call ahead to make sure the theater is accessible. Ideally, the theater will have a ramp or separate entrance you can use.
- Try to claim a seat early. You may be able to reserve certain seats near the aisle (or near the exit) ahead of time or well before the movie starts so you can get up and move around a bit if you’re feeling stiff.
Public Place #4: Grocery Store
Getting to and from a grocery store can have many obstacles for people with AS.
- Ask for curbside service. Some grocery stores have a service that will do the shopping for you and bring your bags out to you directly. Some will even deliver to your home.
- Consider using a food delivery service. Subscription services such as Blue Apron, Purple Carrot, Daily Harvest, and more will deliver food to your doorstep.
- Use a scooter or wheelchair. Even if you normally use a cane, a scooter or wheelchair may be more efficient for getting up and down the aisles, says Jacobs. If you have trouble reaching an item, ask a store employee for help. Dr. Bose also suggests bringing a friend or family member to help you.
Public Place #5: Workplace
If you don’t work from home, you may spend much of your day in a public space, which makes it all the more important that you’re comfortable there.
- Ask for accommodations. This may mean a desk or seating arrangement near an aisle or the restroom or a more ergonomic computer setup. Granted, it can be hard to discuss workplace accommodations you may need with your employer, but anything that helps you work more comfortably will ultimately benefit everyone. “People are reluctant to [have a frank conversation with their employer], but it is essential,” says Jacobs.
- Take breaks whenever possible. Doing stretches or light exercises may help ward off stiffness that can occur throughout the day, especially if you’re seated in one place for a long time.
- Know your rights. The Job Accommodation Network is a helpful resource for figuring out how to tell your employer about your accessibility needs. It also explains your rights as an employee.