Shop for the Best Luggage for Your Arthritis

Choose the right bag to make travel less painful and more accessible.


Handling luggage can be awkward at best, painful at worst. Packed bags are heavy, hard to grip and must be moved quickly, under pressure and in public through check-in lines and security portals.

Occupational therapists say the best luggage is lightweight and strong with wheels and handles that help with maneuvering. Here is how to vet luggage before buying it.

Prioritize your pain.

Start by considering what’s painful when you’re handling luggage and travel tasks, says Cheryl Crow, an occupational therapist and adjunct faculty member of Lake Washington Institute of Technology’s occupational therapy assistant program, in Kirkland, Washington. With rheumatoid arthritis that affects her hands, “my main priority is to avoid hand stress in the handles, buttons and closures,” Crow says. “Someone with shoulder osteoarthritis may need to focus on avoiding excessive lifting and pulling from the shoulder area.”

Roll it.

Rolling bags are essential for most trips, says Karen Jacobs, a clinical professor of occupational therapy at Boston University who consults with luggage manufacturers to develop joint-sparing backpacks and luggage. A bag with four wheels that spin in all directions is easy to maneuver and roll beside you. Test the angle of the telescoping handle to see if pulling the bag will torque your shoulder, and experiment to see which rolling angle is easier for the short and long haul.

Spread out your load.

“Don’t try to get it all in one bag. Split the load between carry-on and checked bags,” recommends Jacobs. Many luggage companies offer small, rolling carry-ons designed to slide under airline seats so you won’t have to lift it into an overhead bin.

Go old school.

People with shoulder and hip arthritis can also use backpacks. The key is to ease the pack on as you would a coat, with the pack either supported by another person or resting on a table, says Jacobs.“Don’t sling them on,” she says, because that can torque shoulder joints. Slick-looking executive backpacks often are made of heavy leather or oiled canvas; outdoor-ready nylon packs with waist straps for redistributing weight are best, says Jacobs. Look for one with padded, easy-access compartments for electronics, which could eliminate the need for another bag for your laptop.

Test drive it.

Buy luggage in person, recommends Crow. Roll it on different floor surfaces to see how it maneuvers. Try every button and zipper and identify potential modifications. “Due to deterioration in my thumb joint, I have trouble depressing the button on some brands of luggage,” says Crow; she also loops an elastic hairband through a zipper tab to make it easier to pull.


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