Your choice of handbag and how you carry it may be affecting your health long term, according to the New Zealand Chiropractors’ Association.
NZCA spokesperson and chiropractor Dr Cassandra Fairest explains: `Regularly carrying a large, heavy bag, texting and looking down can cause an alteration in your natural posture. When you add the combination of high heels it becomes a recipe for accelerated symptoms. The heels tilt your pelvis forward and cause adaptive muscle shortening over time, predisposing you to back pain. The heavy bag over one shoulder magnifies the risk of chronic pain and neuromusculoskeletal dysfunction.
`Shoulder bags are one of the biggest issues. Your natural posture is disrupted if you carry one, and loading it with heavy items adds to the strain on your spine. It alters the way your arms and legs swing when you walk and increases tension in muscles as they work to counter-balance the weight. Long term this can make your body lopsided and affects your spinal posture. Chiropractors are highly trained in assessing and assisting with the damage that this may cause. Prevention is of course always better than cure.’
Dr Fairest points out that all the weight of the bag is on one shoulder, and most people will carry their bag on their dominant side. This causes the muscles in the dominant shoulder to become bigger and chiropractors are commonly seeing people with significant asymmetry in posture, such as one shoulder higher than the other.
`This asymmetric load also causes the opposite side go into spasm to compensate as it attempts to stabilise your spine. The muscle spasm and fatigue then also affects lower down at the base of the spine, forcing all the muscles below the shoulders to work even harder’, Dr Fairest adds. ‘Not only can it cause a lot of stiffness and eventually soreness in the upper back, the shoulder area and the neck, it’s been associated with a decreased curve in the neck, a pathological condition, which is known as “military neck.” Military neck, or forward head carriage, then speeds up degeneration in the spine, and this can cause many ongoing problems as we age as nerves and other tissues are affected.’
There is a longer term risk that women will develop arthritis in their lower neck, and will have difficulty turning the head. The dreaded “Dowager’s Hump” can also be a consequence. Tension headaches may also result from spasms in the shoulder and neck muscles, which may cause pain in the back of the skull that radiates around to the front. Compression or irritation to nerves supplying the arms, hands and other areas can arise with various associated symptoms.
Posture has also been shown to have an effect on many other areas of health and wellbeing beyond symptoms of pain such as mood, energy levels, self-confidence, range of motion, and change in the release of stress hormones.  Poor posture can also negatively impact on job prospects, decision making, work productivity and other areas of life.
Dr Fairest advises her patients to never carry more than five percent of their body weight in a shoulder bag. She says: `You’d be surprised at how much some of us are carrying and the bag itself can weigh quite a lot on its own if it has a lot of studs and big zippers. I also look for bags with handles plus a wide strap as the strap distributes the weight over a wider area, and the handles give an option to carry the bag in your hand or over your forearm.’
She advises bags with handles or those with longer straps for crossbody wearing distribute the weight more evenly but adds: `Change things around regularly by switching to the opposite shoulder at intervals when walking so that you balance the way your body carries the weight and your muscles develop equally.’