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Key to Buying, Hauling Luggage: Watch Your Back

For many people, it’s the most physically demanding and potentially hazardous part of air travel: lugging a stuffed suitcase to the airport check-in or stowing a heavy wheel-on in the overhead bin. It can be just the ticket to back strain or worse.

Fortunately, the luggage industry has taken note, improving its products not only for the image conscious but also for those with less-than-perfect backs. These days it’s easy to find a suitcase of nearly any size with wheels, and suitcase materials are getting lighter. Rolling backpacks also are becoming common. And manufacturers are working to improve the wheel systems.

If you choose a suitcase or backpack wisely, follow some simple guidelines about weight limits and learn basic body mechanics, you can minimize the threat of back injury.

“This year a lot of manufacturers have lightened up” in response to consumer demand, says Heidi Kim, owner of the Luggage Man in Burbank. Her customers ask for the lightest suitcase possible, she says.

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Wheels are improving too, according to the Luggage & Leather Goods Manufacturers of America, a trade group. Now there are four-wheel-drive, in-line skate and retractable ball-bearing wheels, all designed for better maneuverability, which can reduce strain on the back.

Delsey, for instance, has a four-wheel-system suitcase line (suggested retail price $200 and up) that promotes itself as a suitcase you can dance with: When you hold it by the handle, it can twirl around.

Atlantic Luggage will introduce its Infinity 4 line next spring, starting at $189. The design allows you to switch from a four-wheel to a two-wheel system with the push of a button. This is to help adjust to the terrain.

Samsonite’s EZ Cart Suiter ($199 and up) has two large wheels plus two front directional wheels, allowing you to push or pull it.

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Whatever suitcase or backpack you choose, minimizing your load can reduce the chances of a back injury, says Dr. Richard Rosenberg, an orthopedic surgeon at Encino-Tarzana Regional Medical Center. He recommends that minimally fit or sedentary people limit the weight of each suitcase to about 25 pounds. Those who weight train regularly or are otherwise fit can probably safely tote up to about 50 pounds, he says.

Choose suitcases with wheels when buying new luggage, Rosenberg says, but he stops short of recommending the newer, more sophisticated--and more expensive--wheel systems.

Test the suitcase at the luggage store, advises Kathy Warner, an occupational therapist at the Arthritis & Back Pain Center at the Swezey Institute in Santa Monica. If it doesn’t roll smoothly over the carpet, keep shopping for a model that does. Look for a suitcase model with a handle that you can raise without bending over, she adds.

At your destination, don’t unpack a suitcase by putting it on the floor and bending over, Rosenberg says. Unpack with minimal bending to avoid problems.

If you experience back pain despite the best suitcase and preventive efforts, apply heat, Rosenberg advises. In a hotel room, that might mean soaking in a warm bath or applying a warm, wet towel. Apply the towel or soak in the tub for 20 minutes two or three times a day, if possible, he suggests. And consider taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medicines such as Advil.

The Healthy Traveler column appears twice a month.


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