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The Healthy Traveler

Choosing Suitable Suitcases


Americans spend nearly $2 billion a year on luggage, according to industry sources, lured not just by snappy appearances but by new features that promise to make traveling easier on the back and other injury-prone parts of the body. While buying the correct luggage is certainly constructive, travelers who hope to travel without pain must also pack smart and tote their cargo properly.

Suitcases with wheels have been around for years, but manufacturers now are trying to improve existing designs to make the suitcases easier to pull and less apt to tip over, said Mark Salander of American Tourister, a luggage manufacturer in Warren, R.I.

Wheels are also showing up on garment bags. "Wheeled garment bags used to just be [available] in large wardrobe sizes," said Bill King, a designer for Samsonite Corp. But wheels are now showing up on smaller and smaller bags.

Another trend, King said, is the manufacture of square suitcases, which are less awkward for wheeling than rectangular ones. The square shape lowers the center of gravity, King said, making the case more stable and easier to pull.

Tutto Luggage, manufactured by Mascot Metropolitan Inc., received a favorable review from the Arthritis Foundation, which noted that the luggage line "provides a significant improvement in ease of use over other types of luggage" for people with arthritis.

Among the features that the Arthritis Foundation cited as valuable were the line's four-wheel base, U-shape pull bar anchored to each side of the suitcase frame, locations of the wheels (at the bag's corners for better balance, rather than tucked toward the center underneath) and the light weight of the cases.

In general, travelers should use suitcases with straps or wheels rather than traditional models only with grips, said Dr. David Rempel, University of California, San Francisco, professor of medicine and director of its ergonomics program. Anyone with carpal tunnel syndrome should not grip traditional suitcase handles, he said. Whatever the condition of the back and hands, consider the use of backpacks when possible, he said. "The lighter the weight of the suitcase, the better," he said.

"For day travel," Rempel said, "fanny packs are better than purses and even backpacks" because the fanny packs place additional weight closer to the center of gravity.

If shopping for a suitcase with wheels, travelers should try out a new model by using the handle to be sure they can comfortably roll it while standing completely straight, said Johnette Meadows, a physical therapist and spokeswoman for the American Physical Therapy Assn. Stooping while pulling the suitcase could result in back or neck pain.

The way that a suitcase packs and unpacks can affect the way it affects the body, said Bhrian Resnik, a physical therapist who co-owns and manages the Relax the Back store in Tarzana. For example, luggage with side compartments, which afford easy access to contents, can minimize the picking up and putting down of suitcases while traveling.

Once travelers have sturdy, lightweight luggage, proper packing and carrying techniques are vital. It's best, back specialists agree, to pack with the suitcase at a level that minimizes bending--such as the height of a bureau. "Don't pack heavy," said Dr. Charles Resnick, an orthopedic surgeon at Orthopaedic Hospital, Los Angeles. It's impractical to recommend maximum poundage, because the ability to carry a given weight depends on an individual's strength. But Resnick offers this guideline: Don't pack any more in a single suitcase than can be lifted and carried without strain.

For children, backpacks are preferable to suitcases, according to the American Physical Therapy Assn., because they can put the two straps on their back and carry the weight equally.

Injuries that might flare up with luggage-toting include back problems, carpal tunnel syndrome and tennis elbow, among others. Should they occur, "Use anti-inflammatories and rest," Resnick said.

En route, seek out whatever resources are available to minimize stress, Resnick said, including porters and luggage carriers.

* The Healthy Traveler appears the second and fourth week of every month.

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