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Heavy-purse syndrome: What your bag’s doing to your back

Follow these seven tips to ensure your purse isn’t causing you serious health issues.

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Rachel Zoe leaving her hotel in Soho

Rachel Zoe (Photo, wenn.com/Keystone Press)

A handbag isn’t just an accessory, it’s also your contingency plan. From wallets and cosmetics to tablets and gym clothes, your bag carries all of your ‘just-incase’ items. But carting around a heavy purse can harm your health. If you’re experiencing back, shoulder, buttock pain, arm pain or a tingling in your hands, it’s possible your bag’s adding trauma to your spine.

According to Dr. Ayla Azad, an Ajax-based chiropractor and VP of the Ontario Chiropractic Association, lugging a fully loaded bag on a daily basis can cause stress and injury to your body.

“Females don’t realize that it’s their bag [causing the discomfort],” she says. “They think it’s the way they’re sitting at their computer, or how they lift something, when it’s actually the repetitive action of carrying their purse every day.”

Dr. Azad says the heft in your handbag can cause many health problems including:

1. Upper neck and back pain
2. Poor posture
3. Muscle spasms
4. Sciatica (including nerve pain in the buttocks and down the legs)
5. Tendinitis of the elbow
6. Injury to the rotator cuff muscles in the shoulder
7. Tension headaches
8. Numbness or tingling in the arms, hands or fingers due to pinched nerves

To avoid any one of these symptoms Dr. Azad recommends you:

1. Choose a bag carefully
A bigger bag isn’t better. “The larger the bag, the more that you can shove into it, the more weight you have,” she says. “If you have a smaller bag, you’re less likely to put stuff in it that you don’t need because you don’t have the space.”

2. Avoid chain link, or skinny straps
They may look chic, but they’ll dig into your shoulder. “The acromioclavicular joint, where your collar bone meets your shoulder blade, has little ligaments. If your purse digs into that joint, it can create pain and irritation,” says Dr. Azad. A wider strap of five centimetres or more won’t pinch your shoulder, and “will distribute the weight of the bag more evenly,” she says. “The thicker, the better.”

3. Be mindful of the fabric
Leather bags — even when empty — are heavier than fabric or nylon bags. To lighten your load, choose a lighter fabric option and make sure it has different compartments to distribute the weight evenly. Without compartments, all your stuff will collect in one spot in the bag, creating a painful load to carry.

4. Say no to embellishments
Extra metal links, grommets, tassels and buckles add heaviness. Go for a bag that’s classic and neat without all sorts of add-ons.

5. Switch to a backpack
When worn correctly, they distribute weight properly. “Carry the backpack with both straps, wearing it snug against your back, not loose and hanging down by your butt. And put the heaviest items against your back,” says Dr. Azad.

6. Slim down its contents
Your full purse shouldn’t weigh more than 10 percent of your body weight, so if you’re 140 pounds, your bag (and its contents) shouldn’t be more than 14 pounds. To slim your purse down, Dr. Azad suggests taking only what you really need. Empty coins from your wallet, carry cash, a few cards and ditch the back-breaking key chains. Instead of toting the entire contents of your makeup bag, bring along just your daily essentials.

If pairing-down your belongings is impossible, Dr. Azad suggests distributing the load in two bags, or packing everything in a carry-on sized bag with wheels. “It’s a great option if you must carry a lot of heavy stuff like a laptop,” she says.

7. Carry your bag safely
Don’t carry your bag in the crook of your arm. It’s a sure way to injure your elbow, and possibly cause tendinitis says Dr. Azad, “Carry it by hand and alternate it from side to side,” says Dr. Azad.

She also warns not to hike up one shoulder, in an attempt to stop the straps from falling off, because it will only tighten that side. “That bad posture, over time, will create shoulder, neck, and upper back pain because muscles have to work extra hard.”

Dr. Azad recommends alternating sides throughout the day, or carrying your bag diagonally across your body, so your shoulders and back aren’t solely responsible for the weight. “Your core muscles will help carry the load. Switch the purse diagonally side to side through the day,” she advises.

When to seek help
If you’ve edited your purse, but still have numbness or tingling in your hands, a decrease in grip strength, or increasing back pain, seek professional help. “If your symptoms keep getting worse, see a chiropractor, physiotherapist, or physician, and get some treatment,” says Dr. Azad.

Read more: Five yoga poses to relieve back pain