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Why your Purse is Giving You Back Pain

According to the American Chiropractic Association, half of working Americans admit to having back pain. What’s more, our nation as a whole is spending at least $50 billion each year to remedy that pain. One culprit? Our heavy purses.

What Happens to Our Bodies When we Carry a Heavy Purse?

  • Your natural gait is thrown off. One of the consequences of carrying a shoulder bag on one shoulder is that it significantly interferes with the normal gait. The gait is the way your arms and legs swing when you walk naturally, and it’s an important way to keep your body balanced. When you put a handbag on one side of the body, it means the arm on that side can’t swing properly and the other arm has to swing more. People can develop problems because of that, she says.

  • Your muscles are off balance. Since all of the weight of your bag is on one shoulder, you’re carrying an asymmetric load, which throws off your posture. Most people tend to carry purses on their side of dominance — if you’re right-handed, you’ll hang it over your right shoulder. But this causes the muscles in your dominant shoulder, particularly the trapezius muscle, to become bigger. We see asymmetry in posture — like, one shoulder’s higher than the other — from this chronic forcing of the muscles on one side to become more developed than the muscles on the other side.

  • This asymmetric load also causes muscles in your spine to compensate for the weight which can cause the opposite side of the spine to go into spasm. This overcompensation can also affect your lower back and your sacrum (the bone at the base of the lower spine) — the more asymmetric the load, the more everything below the shoulder will have to work.

  • As a result, your muscles become stiff. Carrying that heavy purse can cause the trapezius muscle, which sits on top of your shoulders, to spasm and therefore tighten, along with the muscles that go from your shoulder to the base of your neck. When that happens, it can cause a lot of stiffness in the upper back, the shoulder area and the neck.. It can also cause a decreased curve in the neck, which is known as texting neck.

  • You can even get headaches. Some people will develop tension headaches from the muscles being forced to do all of this heavy lifting. When the muscles in your shoulder and neck area spasm, it can cause pain in the back of your skull that radiates around to the front.

How to Fix it

  • Reduce the weight of your bag.The rule of thumb is to never carry more than 10 percent of your body weight, but Dr. Erickson recommends not exceeding 5 percent with purses. And you may be carrying more than you realize. It’s also important to make sure that the purse itself isn’t heavy — many of the accoutrements of designer bags, like studs and big zippers, add unnecessary weight.

  • Opt for bags with wider straps. The wider the strap, the better, because it distributes the weight over a wider area. This protects the delicate structures in the shoulder where your nerves go from the neck into the arm. That’s a pretty delicate area in terms of potential injury from heavy weight.

  • Even better, choose bags with alternative strap options. We recommend choosing bags with handles you can hold in your hand (“1950s style”) as well as longer straps for crossbody wearing to better distribute the weight and give your shoulders periodic breaks.

  • Switch shoulders periodically. Both doctors recommend switching your purse to the opposite shoulder every block or two when walking so that you balance the way your body carries the weight and your muscles develop equally.

  • Don’t text while carrying your purse. Remember “Texting Neck”? “It’s not always caused by just a handbag. Sometimes it’s the double-duty of texting and looking down that causes the curve in your neck to get lost and get flat.

  • If nothing else, consider switching to a smaller purse. With bags, here’s a situation where bigger is not better. When you carry a large purse, you’re more likely to put more unnecessary stuff in it that will weigh it down.


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