We all do it at some point: Carry a gigantic purse or bag, overstuffed with ALL the things. But, when we do, odds are we will end the day with ALL the pain. It’s happened to most of us; admit it. Even with the best of intentions, like downsizing to a small pouch for a purse, we inevitably throw it in a bigger bag because we need to bring this or that with us, too; wallet, keys, phone, but we can’t stop there. I know I personally also throw in my makeup, my laptop, a water bottle, a snack, and even bandaids (that comes from decades of being a mom). And whatever else anyone else might need that day.
Honestly, a roller bag like the one you take on vacation would be a wise move for me some days, but you know that’s not going to happen day to day. So, let’s talk about the toll carrying that heavy bag can take and what you can do to save your shoulders and back from future problems.
The Strain is Real
If you’re carrying a heavy shoulder bag or purse, odds are it’s straining muscles and affecting blood flow to your shoulder. That’s because the weight isn’t distributed evenly. The thin straps used on purses add to the aggravation. The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) says it puts extra pressure on your nerves leading to your shoulders, neck, and lower back. You’ll pay the price later with tightness, stiffness, numbness, or even a pins-and-needles-tingling sensation.
That’s because your body isn’t designed to carry heavy bags for long, and it can throw your posture out of whack. Studies have shown that shoulder and hand-held bags could cause stress and strain around the spine, ultimately leading to pain and progressive “postural scoliosis,” where you tilt your spine forward for relief.
Switch It Up
Carrying a heavy bag on the same side of your body for a long time can also cause your shoulder to roll forward and down. This will cause the muscles in the upper back and neck to stretch out and weaken your muscles. If this is ongoing, you can end up with thoracic outlet syndrome. Symptoms include shoulder and neck pain, and numbness, weakness, and coldness in your fingers. It affects the space between the collarbone and first rib, called the thoracic outlet. It can typically be treated with physical therapy and pain relief. In rare cases, though, surgery may be required to relieve the compression.
The American Chiropractic Association says your bag should never weigh more than 10 percent of your body weight. Exceeding this weight can impact three parts of your body: Neck, shoulders, and back.
Carrying it too long can strain the trapezius shoulder muscle. That’s the muscle that helps with moving, rotating, and stabilizing your shoulder. If you have something heavy on just one side, the trapezius muscle there will become larger than the other, and the muscles will have to compensate, which can lead to spinal spasms that you feel in your neck.
Your shoulders will also have to lift up if you’re carrying something heavy, and using one shoulder too long can lead to muscle strain and pain and leave one shoulder sitting higher than the other.
To balance your spine, muscles on the other side will also tense up and tighten one part of your muscle while loosening the other. This can cause inflammation and dislocation of small spinal joints.
What Can You Do?
If it hasn’t progressed too far, the simple solution is to literally take the weight off your shoulders. Dump some of the stuff you’re carrying. Of course, you need your phone, keys, and wallet, but do you REALLY need all the extras? At the very least, look at the actual bag you’re carrying, and choose something lightweight to put everything into.
Also, look for something with a wide strap. That will help spread some of the strain. At least two inches will protect the delicate nerves between your neck and shoulders. Padding on the straps would be a bonus.
Also, look for a longer strap that can be placed diagonally across your chest. If that’s not possible, be sure to shift your bag from shoulder to shoulder. Doing this will prevent major asymmetry in muscle development and keep your posture even. These solutions should help alleviate pain quickly and prevent issues from happening in the future.
Another possible option is to use a small backpack that will help distribute the weight more evenly, though you should still be aware of how much you put into it.
You can also try to build up your shoulder, neck, and upper back muscles by doing some exercises with light weights. Doing three sets of 15 to 20 reps of shoulder resistance exercises daily will help. Regular exercise can build strength, so you’re not feeling as much pain when carrying your bag.
If you don’t follow these tips, you may end up with serious shoulder and back injuries. According to the American Chiropractic Association, around 80% of the U.S. population will have back pain at some point in their lives. If you follow our advice, you won’t be one of them.
Bags That’ll Save Your Shoulders