If you’re anything like me, your handbag is more than an accessory. It’s where you store everything you’ll need for going to work and dining out (or in case of a zombie apocalypse, of course). Our handbags are where we keep our basics — and then some — like wallets, cosmetics, laptops, snacks, gym clothes, water bottles, ad nauseam. Let’s face it: We’d be lost without our bags.
This didn’t use to be the norm, however. In earlier days, handbags were exactly that: Designed to be carried in your hands for smaller items like money or trinkets. It wasn’t until the 20th century, with more women becoming employed, that purses grew in size and began being slung over the shoulder for evening use or going to the office. Fast forward to the present day and many of us are hauling around Mary Poppins-sized totes. But carting a heavy purse all day is more harmful to our health than we may realize.
According to the American Chiropractic Association, about 80 percent of the U.S. population will have back pain at some point in their lives. “Over time, the amount of strain that we put on our bodies due to oversized bags can cause some pretty serious pain and even long-term issues like muscle spasms or a pinched nerve,” explains Caleb Backe, a health and wellness expert for Maple Holistics.
If you’re experiencing shoulder, back, buttock, and arm pain or tingling in your hands — unhealthy handbag habits could be to blame. Let’s look at some of the culprits and how you can avoid causing serious injury to your spine.
First, your tote’s too heavy
Sure, being prepared for a possible Walking Dead scenario has its advantages, but it’s also putting endless stress on your hips and shoulders. The continued off-kilter angle that you subject your body to could also result in your gait becoming unbalanced, says Backe.
Lightening your load is the best way to ensure that your muscles and shoulders stay healthy. “Simply reduce the weight of your handbag to the point where you don’t feel any noticeable strain from carrying it.”
Your bag gives no support
“I’ve seen countless patients come into my practice complaining of pain in the shoulders, neck, or in the middle of the back,” says Backe. “Nine times out of ten, they’re carrying some huge, overloaded whopper of a bag that would really be better suited for hiking than a day at the office.” Using a backpack can relieve tension because it distributes weight properly when worn correctly.
If you don’t like the idea of using a backpack, he recommends getting a handbag with good, firm grips that have some added padding to help reduce the strain on your muscles. Also make sure to avoid totes with chain links or skinny straps that will dig into your shoulder. “The styles you wear should not impede your ability to get through your day effectively and comfortably.”
You’re too one-sided
“We’re creatures of habit and tend to carry things with the same arm,” says Dr. Caleb Spreiter, a chiropractor based in Oklahoma. When you have a heavy bag on the same shoulder for long periods of time, he explains, it’ll cause the shoulder to begin to roll forward and down which stretches the muscles in the upper back and neck. This will eventually lead to weak muscles and more severe issues like thoracic outlet syndrome. To prevent this, Spreiter recommends alternating sides throughout the day.
Waiting too late for pain symptoms
Instead of waiting for pain to strike (and risking further injury), Spreiter recommends doing three sets of 15-20 reps of resistance shoulder exercises with lighter weights to improve the strength and endurance of weak upper back, neck, and shoulder muscles.
According to Toronto-based chiropractor, Dr. Jonas Eyford, we should learn how to undo the imbalances heavy handbags cause by taking a few minutes at the end of the day to feel which of our muscles in our shoulders, neck, back, and chest are tight and tender — then stretch those out. He says you can also use a small therapy ball to roll out the tension and trigger points in specific muscles.
Remember to check in with your body. If you’re continuing to experience numbness or tingling in your hands and arms, or feel your back pain increasing, seek professional help by visiting a chiropractor, orthopedist, or physician. As Backe explains, “There’s no point in being a slave to style when your body is suffering as a response. No compliment is worth a lifetime of chronic back, shoulder, and neck pain.”
Cindy Lamothe is a freelance journalist based in Guatemala. She writes often about the intersections between health, wellness, and the science of human behavior. She’s written for The Atlantic, New York Magazine, Teen Vogue, Quartz, The Washington Post, and many more. Find her at cindylamothe.com.