Like most people, you probably stuff your handbag with enough supplies to carry you through any situation. A walletful of membership cards. Reading material for a week. An extra pair of shoes. Just in case, right?
But as a chiropractor, I know this can lead to serious problems. That's because your heavy bag is most likely pulling one side of your body down, causing a core imbalance. And that's one of the root causes of back pain. A heavy purse or messenger bag — yes, this can apply to men, too — can also cause tension in your neck and shoulder muscles.
First of all, let’s assess one thing. Do you really need to be carrying around a complete makeup kit, external hard drive, and Jonathan Franzen's new 576-page novel with you everywhere? Probably not.
One of the most important things you can do now to prevent back pain is to clean your bag out often and pare it down to the essentials.
The American Chiropractic Association’s guidelines suggest that your purse or backpack should not weigh more than 10 percent of your bodyweight — so Step No. 1 is minimizing what's in your bag. I also recommend choosing a smaller handbag, to force yourself to carry around less.
Now that we’ve scaled down your load, here are a few more tips I tell my patients to help keep their bags from causing pain:
1. Use a backpack, if you can.
OK, I realize it may be considered more fashionable to avoid a backpack. But if you can find one that suits you, backpacks can seriously help to even out the load. The good news is that popular brands like Marc by Marc Jacobs and Kate Spade are now offering quality backpacks that won’t detract from your carefully curated outfit.
And of course, if fanny packs ever make a comeback, back pain doctors like me would rejoice — but we aren’t banking on the ‘80s revival.
2. Buy a bag with a top handle.
I also recommend using a purse that you can carry in your hand with a small handle, such as a satchel. They work better for decreasing stress on your neck, shoulders, and back. And you can easily swap your carrying hand throughout the day.
3. Alternate carrying sides.
Although we all have a more natural side we prefer to carry our single-strap bags on, try switching sides throughout the day. Even if your left shoulder doesn’t feel right at first, the more you practice mixing it up, the more comfortable it will feel.
And if you carry two bags at once — like a purse and gym bag — always carry them on opposite sides to balance out the weight.
4. Avoid "bag jerk."
The worst offender is what I call “bag jerk." That's when a bag slides off your shoulder abruptly, causing your body to twist and strain. To avoid this, look for something with a nice wide strap with some grip. Messenger or cross-body bags can go a long way toward guarding against “bag jerk.”
You should also adjust the strap so that it’s not too low (below the hip), where it can impede your normal walking motion.
5. Go bagless when you can.
Whenever possible, leave your heavy bag at home. For example, get a keychain that you can detach to only include your house key, if that’s all you need. Or, buy a slim cardholder wallet with a cash clip on the other side — good for times when you're wearing an outfit with some pockets.
6. Don’t text or talk on your phone while carrying a handbag.
Unless you're using a hands-free setup, these phone activities tend to exacerbate the imbalance created by heavy bags. Just wait until you can set your bag down. (Learn more here about the proper body position for texting.) And if you really need to multitask in this way, see my backpack suggestion.
7. Consider your shoe choice.
Why am I addressing footwear in an article on handbags? Because what you put on your feet makes a big difference in how you walk and in your overall back health. When you're stable on your feet, it makes balancing your uneven handbag load easier.
Again, I'm a realist and I know that heels may be a required part of dressing for work or a night on the town. I suggest stashing a few pairs neatly under your desk and walking to work and around the office in more comfortable flats. Trust me: You'll yield better results if you limit the time spent in your Louboutins.
Bonus: Comfortable shoes also encourage walking. And walking and other forms of regular exercise help ward off the negative effects of the too-heavy handbag. Incorporate exercises and stretches (such as the cobra pose in yoga) that counteract the stresses of daily life — including your beloved bag.