Over 50? Your carry on bag may put you at risk

Photo credit: American Airlines
Photo credit: American Airlines

An orthopedic surgeon warns of the risks of a heavy carry on bag and offers some tips.

Many over-50 travelers don’t realize that they may be placing themselves at risk of significant shoulder injury when they attempt to juggle heavy carry on bags into awkwardly configured overhead compartments on airplanes.

I’m as guilty as the next person. Even seasoned travelers succumb to the temptation to stuff as much as possible into hand luggage for some very practical reasons:

-Traveling with one bag is easier than traveling with two.

-It reduces the hassle of waiting for checked bags upon arrival at your destination

-It minimizes the risk of lost bags.

-Distributing weight (e.g. heavy objects, such as shoes or straightening irons) into carry on bags (which usually aren’t weighed) can help avoid extra fees for overweight checked bags.

Consultant orthopedic surgeon Simon Moyes of London Bridge Hospital reports seeing an increasing number of shoulder injuries occurring as a result of travelers trying to maneuver carry ons into tightly-packed overhead bins.

“These patients usually develop tendon injuries as they are performing movements they are not used to, with weights they are not used to,” Moyes writes in a press release. “This will produce a condition known as post traumatic impingement syndrome (a ligament tear) and/or rotator cuff tearing.

How do you know if this has occurred? Moyes says you’ll usually feel an acute pain over the lateral deltoid (shoulder muscle) that radiates down the arm, which doesn’t get better on its own.

6 Takeaway Tips:

  • Don’t start off with a carry on that’s heavy when empty. Invest in a lightweight model.
  • Be conscious when you pack your carry on, being careful not to make it too heavy.
  • Be especially careful when lifting the bag overhead.
  • If there’s no space in the overhead bin and you need to maneuver other peoples’ bags, ask for their help.
  • If you aren’t in the best of shape, see if cabin crew can assist you.
  • If you experience symptoms after lifting your bag, have them evaluated by a medical specialist.

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  1. And the 7th takeaway tip should be: if your bag is too heavy or you’ve developed shoulder or back problems (common after the age of 50), check the bag. I finally had to start doing this. And relying on someone to help me place my bag overhead wasn’t working. Airline personnel are not always keen on doing this and that “nice” fellow traveler is not always around to help. Paying a fee or running the risk of a lost bag is better than creating physical problems that can ruin your trip.

  2. Excellent advice. I hate trying to put bags in the overhead bins and usually ask for help. Young men especially seem willing to help. If things get too heavy and the fee is reasonable ($25), I just check my bag. Walking through an airport like a pack mule is not a “vacation!” 🙂

  3. I still haven’t found the balance between keeping my carry on light and stuffing it to avoid checking a bag, but I’m learning. I do pay more attention now to how my luggage and packing will affect my shoulders and back.

  4. I agree on checking the bag. Schlepping carryons is no longer best practice on crowded flights. Have you followed the tweet meme #carryonshame? Twitter vigilantism! On board stealth photos of travelers who’ve taken leave of their common sense, trying to cram oversized belongings into the bin. Pet peeve!

  5. Great tips! I have a grumpy back that likes to bother me at the worst times. Tweaking it putting on or taking off my bag is a horrible. I keep it light and check if need be. It’s a good way to keep your packing to a minimum.

  6. Oh, be careful with asking cabin crew to help you lift things, or to you might happen the same thing as did to me: I took once for an extended trip all my books in a carry-on bag which was rather heavy. When the steward wanted to lift up the drop-down luggage bin he noticed the weight, after much discussion decided it was too heavy (for claimed security reasons), and it had to go into the (already closed) haul! So all passengers had to wait for my pack to be stored away, and upon arrival the bag was tagged for personal collection at a counter – where I had to pay for it’s weight!
    Thank god for eReaders nowadays!

  7. Those are some really good tips. Thanks for posting. Back when dinosaurs roamed the tarmac and I was a Pan Am flight attendant, we always helped people put things into the overheads, but I notice that no one does that now…unless you happen to find a nice young man to do it!

  8. I am guilty of packing a heavy carry-on bag but I also do a good job of staying in shape. I appreciate that it doesn’t take much to throw out a back and do hope nothing happens. Maybe I’ll be smarter at 60.

  9. I’m young, but my mother travels a lot and–though she packs well–sometimes struggles to put her bag in the overhead, particularly in larger planes where she is just not tall enough. While there is more often or not a nice person that is more than happy to, sometimes people (including crew) just STARE as someone really struggles with their bag. So to all of us younger travelers (or older people with awesome shoulders), be polite & help!

  10. This is a frustrating subject for me as I’m vertically challenged and those overheads are so high. Fortunately, when I traveled with my “tall” daughter, she always stashed my bag for me.

    Next time when I reserve a seat, I’ll indicate that the seat should be near nice young men that are tall.

  11. I am a firm believer in wheels on every piece of luggage, for a similar reason. The super-heavy backpack, or shoulder bag is a pain (literally) to lug around.

  12. I would love to ditch my carry on, but I’m not sure what to do with my lap top. It sure would make my travels a lot easier! I am on the look out for a one bag system that fit my camera and laptop. No luck so far. Thank you for the tips.

  13. I am one of those crazies that puts in the laptop, cameras and accessories on the hand carry and yes it is extremely heavy so I put it under the seats and not the overhead.

  14. Like, Noel, I’m one of those “under the seat in front of you” type people — mostly because I’m also a window seat person and I have things in my carry on that I’ll want during the flight AND because I have trouble lifting over my head. However, I have noticed increased back, neck and shoulder pain just from carrying my backpack through airports. Maybe it’s time to think about a wheeled carry on.

  15. Due to back issue, I was told by a chiropractor not to carry heavy bags way before I was 50. My daughter-in-law just tore a tendon in her ankle wrestling a suitcase into the car. Those bags can be dangerous!

  16. Thanks for these tips. Yes, So guilty. Well of packing too heavy everything really, and trying to lug too much of everything. I’m having chiro work done on my shoulder which exhibits exactly this pain … so who knows, possibly all down to our recent trip to Europe?

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