Jennifer Dodge, Live Well Expert + Physiotherapist, handbag, injuries, health, wellness, women's health

Jennifer Dodge is a Live Well health expert and founder of her own physiotherapy company The Office Athlete. She shares the science behind why your trusty handbag could be hurting you, as well as ways to prevent handbag-related damage.

“Over the past 5 years, researchers have supported evidence stating that handbag related strains in females are on the rise and have been occurring to the increase in average weight carried. According to a recent Australian study, the weight we carry around on our shoulders has increased by 38% to 2.5 kilograms along with an increase in the overall size of bags for Australian women.

What this does to our bodies is alter our cranio-vertebral angle, which in lay terms means our head-on-neck posture. Females show an overall increase in forward leaning of their head compared to males and this occurs within the first 5 minutes of carrying a bag and walking. So, add some high-heels and a take-away latte in the other hand to your posture and things aren’t looking too good for your spine.

‘Huge City Bag’ injuries are on the up and it can be hard to say which style and way to carry it in particular is better for you – since there are detrimental effects with each:

The arm bag: This is your ‘for show’ tote that hangs off the elbow, which can cause compression related symptoms to the superficial web of nerves and common tendon sites at your elbow joint, along with the constant tension of your contralateral postural muscles in your upper-back.

The shoulder bag: This is your cram-everything-in-for-the-day kind of bag. It can cause an increase in muscle fatigue and tonicity to your upper Trapezius and Scalene muscles both on the carrying side and the opposite in order to counteract the force. This can result in the progression of first rib elevation, neural compression, unnecessary shearing on your skin, tension headaches and that chronic ‘tight shoulder’ pain. Orthopaedic and spinal studies show how symmetry in the weight carried (for example, by using a backpack) reduces the overall head-on-neck postures and spinal adaptations having to be adopted.”

Tips to reduce the damage your handbag is causing:

  1. Reduce the weight. A simple and very effective way to reducing the overall strain. Empty your handbag and have a look at all those items that accumulate to that 2-3kg you’re carrying around in there. The total weight of your handbag should be no more than 10% of your body-weight.
  2. Switch sides and bags often. This way you cannot get into a structural habit that will cause strain over time. It occurs in the first 5 minutes of carrying, so make sure you alternate shoulders frequently.
  3. Break it up. Carry two smaller bags instead of one big and heavy bag. It is important to even out the load and ensure your posture remains as symmetrical as possible – this will result in a reduction in overall strain. A recent study from the American Chiropractic institute indicated that evenly distributed weight decreased lateral spinal sway when ascending and descending stairs and chairs. Which translates to ‘just carry two bags for the sake of your spine’.
  4. Keep it close to the body. The further away your tote is from your torso, the heavier it is. Carrying that large bag nearly as big as you on your elbow may make you look Olsen twin-esque, but it isn’t functional in the slightest. It makes the overall weight of your bag heavier and loads up on the delicate neuromuscular structures in your elbow. Ouch!
  5. Go with wider-straps, or even better two straps. Whether it is Coach or Kmart, evidence supports that handbag weight is more evenly distributed over your shoulder area with wider straps. This can help with reducing the sheering of your skin and local compression your shoulder endures throughout the day.

With a staggering 80 per cent of Australians experiencing back pain at some point in their lives, it is important to see the risk factors at present with your handbag carrying habits and make a few changes that will keep your spine happy and healthy.

Jennifer Dodge is a Physiotherapist and Live Well Expert. She is the founder of The Office Athlete, where she specialises in workplace physiotherapy and injury prevention.