Back and neck pain can intensify when traveling due to the myriad stresses placed on the spine’s intricate network of muscles, joints, and discs. A common source of back strain while traveling is handling and lifting luggage, as well as sitting for long periods and poor lumbar support.

See Pulled Back Muscle and Lower Back Strain

This article outlines several essential travel tips to minimize back strain and pain that can quickly become severe on long travel days.

Use Protective Lifting Techniques for Luggage

To protect the spinal structures from undue stress, try the following lifting techniques:

  • Bend at the knees and squat to lift heavy items, instead of bending at the waist
  • When bending, carry the weight in the leg muscles rather than the back muscles
  • Carry items close to the chest rather than forward in front of the body
  • Distribute weight evenly on both sides of the body, instead of piling bags onto one shoulder
  • Move the body to meet the bag, rather than pulling the bag to meet the body

Additionally, move slowly and carefully. Be aware of the surrounding space to know how much room there is to handle luggage. For example, on a plane, wait until nearby passengers have cleared the aisle so there is more room to retrieve luggage from an overhead bin.

See Avoid Back Injury with the Right Lifting Techniques

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Lift Luggage in Stages to Protect the Back

Back injury tends to occur when lifting heavy items near the end of the body’s range of motion, such as when:

  • Bending at the waist to lift a suitcase off the ground
  • Lifting a suitcase from the ground into an overhead compartment
  • Twisting at the waist to move a suitcase from a car trunk to the ground

See Three Easy Rules to Avoid Back Injury

For this reason, lift heavy items slowly, breaking the action into multiple steps and distinct motions.1 For example, when lifting a bag into an overhead bin on an airplane, first place the bag onto the top of the seat, then lift the bag overhead to be stowed into the bin.1

See Manual Material Handling to Prevent Back Injury

Similarly, loading a suitcase into the trunk of a car can be broken into two steps, by first lifting the suitcase onto a chair or stepstool, then lifting it into the back of the car.

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Pack Light

Avoid overpacking or using a bulky, hard-to-handle suitcase. Instead, use a suitcase with wheels, and distribute weight between smaller bags that can be lifted one at a time.1

Avoid using a suitcase made of relatively heavy materials, such as leather. Use a suitcase made of lightweight materials, such as canvas, vinyl, or plastics such as polycarbonate.

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Minimize Luggage Handling to Avoid Back Strain

There are many options for minimizing luggage handling and lifting traveling through an airport, train station, or bus depot, such as:

  • Use curbside check-in services for air travel, which is a check-in service usually available at the departures drop-off curb before entering the airport. This service means minimal luggage handling. Check with the airline before arriving to ensure that curbside check-in is available.
  • Request mobility assistance through an airport or station to avoid handling luggage and walking long distances. Mobility assistance may include an option to use a wheelchair or a motorized cart.
  • Consider preboarding, available through airline carriers or train operators for passengers who request such services. Preboarding can be especially helpful to have extra time to get seated, stow bags and/or mobility equipment (such as a cane), and board without having to navigate a crowded area.
  • Ask for assistance to carry or lift luggage. Flight attendants may be available to help stow and retrieve luggage in an overhead bin. At a train or bus station, assistants may be available to move luggage on carts through a depot to the boarding area.
  • Ship ahead to avoid carrying luggage the day of travel. For example, before traveling mail the luggage so that one small carry-on bag can be carried through an airport or train/bus station.1

Mobility assistance, pre-boarding, and other custom arrangements usually need to be made at the same time as the original reservation in order to ensure the service is available. In some situations, it may be a good idea to get a letter from the doctor requesting assistance for a specific condition.

References:

  1. Nichols B, Nova P, Jacobs, K. Ergonomic Strategies for Using a Suitcase. The American Occupational Therapy Association. https://www.aota.org/About-Occupational-Therapy/Patients-Clients/Adults/Ergonomic-Strategies-Suitcase.aspx. August 2018. Accessed May 2019.
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