Is your handbag going to give you arthritis (Inflammation of a joint or joints)?
Not to mention slipped discs and bad knees!
How lugging around a heavy load can put years on your body
Stuffed full with a purse, mobile phone, umbrella, diary, make-up bag, book and water bottle, it’s no surprise the average handbag weighs nearly half a stone.
Studies show half of women suffer pain from carrying heavy handbags — and now men are also suffering, according to new research by the British Chiropractic Association.
‘Heavy man-bags — weighing, on average, 6.2 kg — put unbalanced strain and stress on the body, which can lead to pain, poor posture and health problems,’ says Rishi Loatey, of the British Chiropractic Association.
‘I’ve noticed a spike in patients experiencing pain in the neck and upper back due to carrying around heavy loads more frequently,’ he adds.
To see exactly how our bodies change when carrying a bag, I went along to Bupa’s Centre for Sports Medicine Excellence in Barbican, London.
There, my movements while walking were recorded and analysed — both with and without my weighty 9 lb-plus handbag — to see the effects. The results were startling.
‘Carrying a bag has a huge impact on posture and movement,’ says Bupa physiotherapist Russell Stocker. ‘Though you might not notice it, your body dramatically adapts and compensates. This was even more pronounced when wearing high heels.’
When you carry a bag, your neck naturally leans away from the load to help carry and balance the weight.
This causes tension on the carrying side of the neck and compression on the opposite side.
‘Craning your neck means increasing the distance between the neck and the shoulder,’ says Russell.
The problem is that this is just where a bundle of nerves come together (forming the brachial plexus) before running into the arm; the strain can lead to neck pain and muscle inflammation.
Over time, this could trigger an ‘acute episode’, he says — the muscles can spasm, restricting movement and causing pain.
SHOULDERS AND BACK
The shoulder bearing the load is rotated backwards and raised all the time, explains Russell.
This affects the muscles running down the upper back, the shoulder blades and those supporting the spine — they tire and spasm.
As Bupa orthopaedic physician Dr Leon Creaney, explains: ‘Fatigued muscles won’t hold the spine correctly, so it will slip into poor posture — slumped with curved back and shoulders.’
Long term, this can lead to painful arthritis in the facet joints. These are tiny joints running all the way along the spine on either side The vertebrae and the discs — the ‘cushions’ of cartilage that sit between the vertebrae — could also be affected.
‘The side of the body not carrying the bag leans away from it, crunching the lower back on this side, while extending it further on the other,’ adds Russell.
This compresses the vertebrae, wearing them down.
Carrying a heavy bag can, over time, also cause disc degeneration and prolapse, says Dr Creaney. This is when the soft tissue inside the disc ruptures out of it, pressing on the nerves.
‘This can be agonising, and even require surgery’ he explains — ‘and carrying a heavy bag could lead to faster disc degeneration.
‘Bearing a heavy load on one side could also cause the spinal nerves to become irritated or compressed — possibly leading to sciatica (pain in the buttock and thigh), which is also very painful.’
The arm carrying the bag remains very static while walking to keep the load still and balanced.
‘This is quite different to the natural swinging movement we make when walking,’ says Russell.
‘Without the normal arm swing used as a balance mechanism, this can make you slightly unsteady and actually mean you need greater effort to move forwards.’
The nerves in the arms can also become irritated by the pressure of the bag, leading to chronic pain.
HIPS AND LEGS
In the long term, women can develop arthritis from increased pressure. ‘Carrying a bag makes you walk differently, and that changes the way forces act through the skeletal system, which could cause problems and pain,’ says Russell.
The greater the load of the bag, the more pressure on the leg joints. Over a long period, force on the knees can cause wear and tear and joint problems.
‘With a heavy bag you also take shorter steps — an adaptation your body probably makes to control the load better and remain upright,’ he adds.
THE BEST WAY TO SHOULDER THAT LOAD
Limit loads and try to distribute the weight you’re carrying, says Dr Creaney. ‘If you don’t want to wear a rucksack, then consider separating your possessions into two bags.
‘When carrying one bag, do so for the shortest time possible and switch sides at regular intervals, giving muscles on either side a chance to rest.’
A bag with wide straps will better distribute the pressure across the shoulder.
‘The weight should be as close as possible to your centre of mass, which is around the pelvis area,’ Dr Creaney adds. So a bumbag would be ideal, physically, if not fashionably.
Tim Hutchful, a chiropractor from the British Chiropractic Association, recommends a satchel-style bag with a strap that crosses the body diagonally, balancing the weight.
‘And straps should be as short as possible, so the bag is close to your body and doesn’t swing,’ he says. ‘Long straps would let it move with momentum as you walk, and bump into your hips, back or knees.
‘If you carry a laptop, use a case with a rucksack design.’
Carrying a bag in the crook of your arm is no better than on the shoulder, however.
‘Overloading the bicep for a prolonged period — especially when the arm is at a 90-degree angle — can lead to pain in the arms,’ says Hutchful.
‘And when hung on one arm the bag is further away from the body’s point of balance. Imbalance is bad for posture and can lead to discomfort.’
Ultimately bags must be kept as light as possible; a recent study found that even female hikers, who wear proper backpacks and footwear, need to limit loads to prevent musculoskeletal problems.
‘The best advice,’ says Russell, ‘would be using a small suitcase instead of a bag, putting your possessions in that and pulling it along behind you.’
So what did this experiment teach me? That the wear and tear from my handbag is making my body old before my time. While I’m not about to clip on a bumbag, I will now carry the real necessities only, and start looking for fashionable rucksacks.