As You Get Ready to Enjoy Summer, Avoid “Suitcase Spine”

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By Steven Knauf

With summer almost here, local families are preparing to hit the road or fly the not-so-friendly skies for summer vacation. During these long trips, many will suffer debilitating back and neck pains some docs call “Suitcase Spine!” It’s caused by lugging heavy suitcases, sitting in a car or airline seat for hours without stretching or sleeping on a flimsy hotel mattress.

The danger? This travel routine could cause serious neck and back pain, irritate bulging or ruptured neck and spine discs that could mean serious health problems long after the trip to grandma’s house is over.

Consider This:

  • A recent AAA survey reveals more than 1/3 of Americans will take a family vacation this year.
  • The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reports more than 72,000 travelers experience luggage related injuries each year.
  • In a recent survey, 9 out of 10 travelers report having neck or back pain while flying.
  • A 2008 Vanderbilt University study finds average Americans spend more than half of their time sitting and much of that sitting time is in the car. In a lifetime, we spend on average 5 years in a car and we drive 798,000 miles – that’s enough to drive to the moon more than 3 times.

How to Prevent “Suitcase Spine”

Suitcase Savvy:

  • Keep suitcases to 30 lbs. Use a few smaller ones instead of one big one.
  • Lift suitcases close to the body – think of an imaginary line from the skull straight down through the pelvis and the ankles. Twenty pounds held out at arm’s length exerts as much force as 50 pounds held close to the body.
  • When lifting luggage to a car trunk, lift to stool or chair first, then the trunk. For the overhead rack on plane, lift to seat first and then to rack so you don’t strain yourself.
  • Substitute your suitcase with a backpack that evenly distributes weight to both sides.

Road Warrior Moves:


  • Before you get in the car, remove your wallet from your back pocket. It’s like sitting on an uneven chair and can twist your spine and strain your lower back.
  • Push seat as far from the pedals as possible and make sure your seat is straight up so you don’t crane your neck forward, keeping your ears, shoulders and hips in line.
  • While sitting at a light, round your shoulders by lifting shoulders up and then round them back. Then lift shoulders up and round them forward.
  • Hold onto steering wheel with both arms extended and push back, holding a few seconds to feel the stretch in your back.


  • Reach your arms above your head toward the sky without lifting your heels. Hold for 20 seconds and release. Repeat five times.
  • To stretch your neck, gently bend your head backward so that your eyes are looking upward. Stop when you feel the stretch and hold for 20 seconds. Repeat five times.
  • Take stops and walk around to stretch your leg muscles and get your blood circulating. To stretch shoulders, clasp your hands behind your lower back, while standing upright. Lift your clasped hands out and away from the body and stop when you start to feel a little discomfort. Hold the position for 15 to 30 seconds.

Avoid Plane Pain

  • To keep muscles loose and warm, before a flight, stretch and walk around the airport instead of sitting in the terminal.
  • Under the seat in front of you, store items in the center so your feet can stretch and lay out on either side.
  • Put a pillow or jacket wedged between your lower back and the plane seat to help keep your back upright and not hunched over.
  • For laptops on plane – try a portable laptop stand so you’re looking straight on and not bent and hunched over.
  • Airplane neck cushions are typically too thick and push your head forward, causing a strain on the neck and ligaments. It’s best to bunch up a sweatshirt or jacket and place it behind the neck to keep your head in an elongated tall position.

(Steven Knauf is Director of Chiropractic and Compliance at The Joint Chiropractic. Chiropractors at The Joint use specific force in a precise direction to restore motion and improve posture, improving the body’s natural healing without surgery or medication.)



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