There’s an injury making the rounds that gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “fashion emergency.” The problem involves an often ignored body part (the shoulder), and the culprit is all the rage—one of those fabulously trendy, stylishly oversize bags that wreak havoc on us.
Not that there’s anything wrong with owning a big, gorgeous tote. The trouble starts when you load it up—wallet, laptop, comfortable pair of shoes, cell phone, PDA, bag lunch, water bottle, book or magazine, maybe both, along with a makeup kit and a few work files—and lug the thing everywhere.
Soon you may start to notice a nagging ache that runs down your neck, across the top of your shoulder blade, and over to your arm. That tiny curved crescent of discomfort gets worse and worse until you do something seemingly innocuous—in my case, I reached out to hug a friend—and suddenly you’re in agony. About 10 minutes after that hug, I called my husband from the freeway to tell him to come looking for me if I wasn’t home soon, because there was a good chance I was going to have to pull over and pass out.
The new purses are so big that they’ve even spawned a kangaroo trend of little bags tucked inside them to organize the wide-open spaces, making them almost impossible to carry unless you scrunch up your shoulder to hold them in place. The 8 to 10 pounds of drag from the purse may cause problems in two ways, according to Neal Elattrache, MD, a specialist at Los Angeles’s Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic. First, it pulls on a web of nerves that can cause aching or shooting pain from the neck down the arm. In addition, every time you sling your fashion statement over your shoulder, the upper back muscles that stabilize the shoulder blade must struggle to counterbalance that weight; eventually they get overworked until a yoga move or hug sends you into anguish.
And the problems don’t stop there, according to physical therapist Gail Wehner, who runs a practice in Santa Monica. Load 10 extra pounds onto one side of the body, and it can cause the trunk to tilt sideways to compensate, adding lower-back pain to the list of woes. Sooner or later, your torqued body will betray you. Then chiropractic realignment and exercises are needed to rebalance all the unhappy muscles. As the stiletto heel is to your foot, the designer handbag is to your upper back.
Boys are taught to walk in a shoulders-back, chest-out posture, whereas that has not been considered a modest posture for women, so the shoulders come forward. And hauling that refrigerator size handbag on the shoulder doesn’t aid in the problem.
The question is, how best to compensate, short of abandoning the gorgeous new bag. Here are some great solutions to the problem…
This matters more than anything. The ideal stance is shoulders relaxed, back, and down, and no leaning to one side. One way to remind your body of proper alignment is to place a round pillow against the small of your back when you sit. Just the trigger of the lump in your back subconsciously tells your muscles to get you some support.
Make sure your workouts include not only the core muscles of the lower back and abdomen but also the shoulder blades.
It can be as simple as slowly shrugging your shoulders while sitting at your desk or watching TV, doing up to 10 repetitions at a time.
If your bag has a strap that rides diagonally across your body, use it. That should distribute the weight better and you don’t have the feeling it will slip off, so you’re less likely to hike your shoulder. Also, swap sides so you’re not always using the same shoulder.
5. Switch It Up
Carry the big bag some of the time, but either pack less into it or alternate with a smaller bag. And try to vary styles. There are issues with any kind of bag. What you really don’t want to do is overuse a single position.
6. Forget the Saying “Beauty Hurts”
Warning signs that you may be on your way to a big-bag injury include an ache in the shoulder blade area and frequent neck stiffness. Headaches—after sitting for long periods of time or at the end of the day—and pain radiating down the arm are also symptoms. If you’re noticing these signs, and if ice and rest don’t make them better after a week or so, grab a very small wallet, your cell phone, and car keys; pat your purse goodbye; and head for the chiropractor’s office.