Travel and Ergonomics: A How-To Guide

photo credit: Victoria Pickering
photo credit: Victoria Pickering

Do you have your sights set on a far-off destination this spring? Have you ever experienced pain from twisting and lifting while you hoist your suitcase off the conveyor belt at baggage claim? Have you tried to “pack lightly” for your carry-on luggage, only to find that your bag weighs more than expected? Or try running to catch your plane at a gate on the other side of an expansive airport, trailing that heavy wheeled suitcase behind you?

As a young girl, my mother and I spent most summers overseas. We each took one large suitcase on the trip going to England – and then bought an additional suitcase for the return visit. These were large, heavy suitcases. My mum somehow managed two of them on the way back and I almost managed one – but not without some aches and pains along the way or after we arrived at our destination.

April is Occupational Therapy (OT) Month, and as an occupational therapist, I have seen quite a few travelers putting themselves at risk for musculo-skeletal injuries in airports around the world. Occupational therapists assist people in “Living life to its fullest” by promoting healthy living in their daily lives – including their lives “on the road.”

Check out these helpful guidelines to decrease your chance of injury when you are traveling:

1. Before you pack your bags, choose outfits carefully. My favorite strategy is to only bring apparel with two basic colors and one pair of shoes, total. For instance, I typically choose black and brown as my “base color”, so the pants I wear on the plane might be black with my blouse and cardigan coordinating with my black shoes and pants. I would then pack my brown coordinates and brown shoes.

2. Balance the load. Plan to use two smaller suitcases instead of carrying one larger suitcase. This ensures a more balanced load on your body and causes less stress on your spine.  Carrying suitcases for extended periods of time is not recommended (easy to say when you are trekking from Terminal A to Terminal R!)

3. Choose the right case for the job. Use smaller luggage for shorter trips. You may want to consider using wheeled luggage, however, keep in mind it often weighs more than cases sans wheels and may lead to some potentially awkward lifting into the car trunk, the overhead compartment or on and off the baggage carousel. If you decide on a case with wheels, opt for 4 wheels instead of 2 for easier control and handles that are adjustable.

4. Do you enjoy showing your personality with some cool vintage trunks? With the renewed appreciation for vintage suitcases, keep in mind that older luggage is often heavier than its modern counterparts. Instead, consider buying lighter weight luggage that is now available in fun prints and save the vintage gear for unique storage or decorating at home.

5. Carry heavy items as close to your body as possible. Toting large bags on your shoulder or elbow can cause some unexpected strains on smaller joints.

6. Let’s face it – there is just no easy way to get a heavy case off the baggage carousel. However, here are a few tips that can decrease your chance of injury.

Ever get to baggage claim after a full flight and the carousel seems to be littered with bags? If suitcases are stacked two and three high, your bag might be teetering on the top of the conveyor belt above other cases.  If this occurs, pick your belongings up in stages:

Stage 1: While your case is centered directly in front of you, reach and slide the bag lower down on the conveyor belt so it is the bottom case, and avoid twisting.

Stage 2: With your case still centered directly in front of you, remove it from the conveyor belt, which may mean your case goes for another go around on the carousel if it has already traveled down the conveyor belt, however, it will be in a more manageable position.

Stage 3: If possible, lift your case off the belt in stages, by picking it up, then putting it on the rim of the carousel, then finally onto the floor, lifting with your knees instead of your back.

7. Avoid prolonged standing (easy to say, when it is standing room only!) When standing, try slightly lifting one heel off the floor for a few minutes, then alternating with the other. This decreases the amount of pressure on your back. Also, change positions frequently to give specific muscle groups a respite.

8. Take your time. Rushing, multi-tasking and distractibility are accidents waiting to happen.

So as you embark on your next adventure, consider these ergonomic tips to decrease your risk for injury.  After all, it is no fun to travel across the globe only to be laid up with a backache or another injury!

Have you ever experienced a mishap using luggage or traveling in general? Please share your story.

For additional information, please check out these ergonomic strategies on using a suitcase from the American Occupational Therapy Association.

Using a backpack between destinations? Check out my backpack safety tips

photo credit: Arun Joseph
photo credit: Arun Joseph

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