Is My Gigantic Purse Causing My Back Pain?

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Lately, my back and neck have been killing me. Is my heavy bag to blame?

It definitely could be, even though you may not think to attribute your neck, shoulder, or back pain to your purse, says Akhil Chhatre, M.D., an assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “If it’s not a very specific focal injury or focal area of pain that is worse right when they put that purse on their shoulder, they’re not going to connect the dots,” he says.

Carrying a heavy load on one side of your body could lead to pain and muscle spasms in the shoulder, neck, or low back, and numbness and tingling in your arms, neck, or mid-back. And compensating for this weight as you walk can lead to its own set of problems — specifically, pain in your hip or oblique muscles on your purse side and opposite-side neck strain as your body tries to level out your shoulders.

These symptoms could happen within a few hours of carrying the bag (that would be considered a strain), or the damage could accumulate over time, says Dr. Chhatre, who’s also the director of spine rehabilitation at Johns Hopkins. And in the long run, you could be giving yourself arthritis. “Joints that are under more stress than is normally expected or is age-appropriate are going to show signs of wear and tear. Those joints are generally painful,” he says. “Carrying undue amounts of weight will accelerate that process.”

Your purse doesn’t have to be huge to cause issues, just heavy, so it’s really an issue of how much stuff you put in it. (Raise your hand if you’ve ever shoved your laptop in your purse instead of using a second bag.) But oversize purses certainly make it easier to overpack. “The temptation with larger bags is to fill them up, and the more that you load them up, the more that you’re distributing pressures asymmetrically,” he says.

The perfect pack-mule vessel is a backpack, but only if you use both straps and tighten them so the bag is close to your body, like your grade-school teachers chirped. “The reason for that is we want the load itself to mimic weight that is part of the body as much as possible.” But backpacks can be swampy and awkward on public transportation. Plus, wearing one may make you feel like you’re en route to algebra class rather than a professional who wants to be taken seriously. Thankfully there are cool leather backpacks that look polished while being ergonomically friendly.

What can you do if you don’t want to switch to a backpack? We already have sleep hygiene and spine hygiene, and Dr. Chhatre suggests purse hygiene. This is not about cleaning your bag, though it probably does need a purge and a de-germing. It’s about proper mechanics and posture. First, stop carrying your bag the same way all the time: Switch shoulders, carry it on your arm sometimes, and, if it has a long strap, use that to make it cross-body. (P.S. A cross-body bag isn’t inherently any better for you than carrying your purse on your shoulder — it’s still putting weight on one side of your body.)

If you’ve already adopted the purse-and-tote-bag model of living to transport your heels, workout clothes, or lunch, you’re on the right track: He actually calls this strategy a treatment modality. In doctor speak, this is “introducing an equal weight on the opposite side of the body to balance the load.”

If carrying a second bag makes you feel sloppy, you can also remove nonessential items from your purse once you get to work. “You’re probably going to use that purse throughout the day to go to meetings or go to lunch and if you can lower what that weight is, you’ll be doing your body a favor.” You could also run out for food or coffee with a small pouch instead of your purse.

And for the love of god, avoid wearing heels while carrying your Sisyphean load. Heels alter your gait to begin with and will only worsen the effects of a heavy bag, he says. The same goes for any clothing that limits your range of motion or only allows you to carry your bag in one specific spot.

If your back still hurts after all this, it’s time to consult an orthopedist or a doctor who specializes in physical medicine like Dr. Chhatre. They might also send you to physical therapy to work on strength in your shoulders, core, and hips, and correct any imbalances your bag may have introduced.

“This all boils down to an ergonomic issue,” he says. “Just like we have highlighted concerns with the way we sit, the way we walk, our posture, our working conditions, we see some of the same issues with purses, especially the larger they get.”

Is My Gigantic Purse Causing My Back Pain?