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Concerns about health care and medical help while on the Camino is one of my most common asked questions. You can read some reports from pilgrims on the Camino here about their experience with the Spanish health care system.
For all those that reside within the twenty-eight countries of the EU taking the E111 card is a must, the card is also known as the European Health Card. The card is issued from your own country of residence and entitles the holder to free emergency treatment. If you are from outside of the EU I strongly suggest you have some travel insurance, often your healthcare provider can provide this at a lower cost than elsewhere.
Firstly I have to state that everything on this page is my opinion and experience – and none of it constitutes medical advice. I am not a doctor, for specific medical advice please consult your own doctor.
Common Medical Issues
- tendonitis or shin splints
- sore or very hot feet
- bed bugs
- access medication / taking own
Dealing With Blisters
Even if you have the perfect shoe or boots with the best socks it is likely that you will have to deal with a blister at some point during your month walking the Camino de Santiago. Making sure you have the right walking shoes/boots and that they are well broken in is a good start. Basically blisters occur as the result of friction between your foot and boot or socks; if you feel a small stone or bit of sand in your boots it is best to just take a break and deal with it, sometimes it is just too tempting to think it is only 30 minutes or such to the next town or village – it is best to deal with immediately, take the time to look after your feet after all they will carry you far – hopefully all the way to Santiago.
There are two main camps of thought regarding blisters: one like me, use a needle and thread the other prefer to cover it with plasters, band aids, Compeed and even duct tape. When I get a blister I stop. I get out my needle and thread and use the needle to leave a bit of thread in the blister to drain it. This seems to be the most common way of treatment. Then I make sure the area around the blister is covered with an antiseptic cream or betadine; both of these can be bought locally in Spain, betadine comes in small yellow bottles and one bottle should last your whole Camino.
My other half prefers to use Compeed. I have tried to use them, however for me it just falls off or moves around on my foot – she swears by it, I hate it. A lot of the blister prevention cure advice is contradictory, you can read some of it here, here and here on the forum. Compeed is a blister product sold in Europe.
Tendonitis or Shin Splints
Tendons attach the muscles to the bones in your body. There will be a lot of muscles used on a much more regular basis if you are walking 20 or 25km every day compared to your daily routine. Examples of tendonitis are tennis elbow and repetitive strain injury – like with a mouse on the computer. The advice for treatment always appears to be rest, that however can be difficult on the Camino. It is possible to stay more than one night in albergues / hostels when there are medical reasons and generally I have found they will do their best to help.
For me, prevention is always my aim and these are the main tips: don’t walk too fast, walk at your own pace and listen to your body when you should stop, rest, and eat. Stay hydrated, drink lots of water. If you start to get sore there are two anti-inflammatory drugs available over the counter in Spain the most common is ibuprofen and then there is diclofenac which is stronger – please seek medical advice or at least ask the pharmacist, they are used to giving advice and treating pilgrims. In this equipment thread on the forum Covey, one of our long time members who has walked the Camino several times gives his experience on ibuprofen.
Sore or Very Hot Feet
This is the problem I suffer from if I walk for more than two days in a row. For me dealing with it has been fairly simple – soak my feet every night for 15 to 20 minutes in cold water, sometimes I will change out the water to get it cold again. If I stop during the day for lunch or a break near a stream I will take the opportunity again to soak and cool my feet. This works a treat.
Bed Bugs and Allergies
There is a lot more panic and noise over bed bugs than there are actual bedbugs on the Camino. However, sticking with my idea that prevention is better than cure see this thread on the forum it has lots of good advice on avoidance and prevention.
Bites from bugs at any point can be dealt with in the form of an antihistamine available from pharmacies. My hayfever was much worse in Spain than at home which is not so much fun for me, but also makes me snore – so not much fun for others either.
Taking Your Own Medications
I have ulcerative colitis and took a small amount of medication. However I did not need it and my health was better on the Camino than at home – maybe all the rest and exercise… Walking with diabetes has been discussed quite a bit on the form and is best read in full there. If you need to take any daily medication that requires a prescription don’t expect to buy it over the counter and take enough with you.
My Experience of Health Care in Spain
I can assure all that the Spanish hospitals are as good as the UK and Ireland, and perhaps because you will be a pilgrim the treatment appears to be quicker – or maybe that is the normal pace. Unfortunately, while on my second Camino, I was taken to hospital by an ambulance from an Albergue. I had become very sore while walking, painkillers did not help. The gent running the albergue that day was a medical student and said I would have to go to a hospital. It was strange being taken from the Camino to a hospital, the contrast between my life every day on the Camino and straight into the 21st century in an ambulance and into the emergency department of a hospital.
I received excellent care and was discharged about six hours later, I waited no time at all to see a doctor – quite amazing. I had a hernia, a couple of days rest and I was back walking another 300km to Santiago – full of fairly strong pain-killers. Maybe not too smart, but I wanted to finish. (Got the operation done in Vienna, now if you ever need medical help that is the country to be in – first class and free)
Anyway, the medical service I have found in Spain is good. If you have a minor ailment go and speak to a pharmacist, they will help and diagnose in these situations and tell you to visit a doctor if they believe it to be more serious.
If you are not resident within the EU, please get health insurance to cover for your whole trip. My problem was minor – I was in an Albergue at Rabanal del Camino one night when a woman fell in the shower and broke her arm. Ambulance to hospital, plaster on her arm and then back to the albergue – if you do not have insurance this will cost – without insurance minor problems turn into major headaches – especially if you have to go home before your return flight.
Spain is a fully developed modern country, I say this because of some of the emails I get from pilgrims asking what things will be like there, fine, it will be fine.
Most people walk the Camino de Santiago without problems, maybe a small blister or two. Again all the above is my experience and opinion. Please share your own experiences below and is there areas I have missed?
Photo credit Culebra