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Is your handbag injuring you?

Everyone knows someone with a bad back. Many of us know more. Most of us are told it was a gymming or sporting injury that did it, but the cause is almost always more pedestrian: a bad posture or worse, carrying a big bag or an overstuffed wallet in your hip-pocket. Sanchita Sharma writes.

columns Updated: Sep 28, 2013 22:35 IST

Everyone knows someone with a bad back. Many of us know more. Most of us are told it was a gymming or sporting injury that did it, but the cause is almost always more pedestrian: a bad posture or worse, carrying a big bag or an overstuffed wallet in your hip-pocket.

The overstuffed wallet syndrome first shot into fame in ‘The Reverse Peephole’ episode of Seinfeld, in which Geoge Costanza gets backache from carrying an overstuffed wallet in his hip-pocket. Jerry Seinfeld tries to get him to get a European carry-all (man purse) instead. “Jerry Seinfeld: Your back hurts because of your wallet. It’s huge. George Costanza: This isn’t just my wallet. It’s an organiser, a memory and an old friend. Seinfeld: Well, your friend is morbidly obese. Costanza: Well, at least I don’t carry a purse. Seinfeld: It’s not a purse, it’s European.”

All “carry-alls” hurt the shoulders and back, wallets stuffed with dispensable cards and memorabilia and totes full of used notebooks, unread books, laptop and smartpads. Big-bag injury usually starts with frequent neck stiffness, aching shoulder blades on the side you carry the bag and upper back pain. Heavy wallets hurt the lower back by messing up your balance and stride.

Even the ergonomic designs with aero-straps that claim to go easier on the back are no better. The extra weight messes with posture and causes intense pain, especially when carried repetitively or over long hauls. Over time, weight-related injury can cause the spine to curve from side to side (scoliosis) or make the upper back to bend over (kyphosis).

Anything heavier than 15% of your bodyweight alters posture. Rucksacks loaded with books were linked with higher levels of back pain and injury in schoolchildren in Spain, reported the Archives of Disease in Childhood in 2012. In India, schoolchildren carry 20-25% of their weight in books each day, as compared to 15-20% in Spain.

If the weight can’t be avoided, place heavier stuff at the bottom of the bag as low-load placement causes fewer changes in posture and spinal curvature. Whenever possible, use two straps to evenly distribute the weight across the back as it is the neck, not the back, which is the weak point for carrying loads. If one-strapping is the only option, swap sides frequently or use the strap diagonally across your body to balance the weight.

Most low back pain resolves on its own within about four to six weeks, with or without treatment, but you need a doctor if the pain is caused by an injury, is so severe you can’t move around or have trouble sleeping, or is accompanied by nausea or numbness that continues down your arm or leg.

In most cases, you can manage your back pain at home using painkillers such as paracetamol, ibuprofen and naproxen, or topical creams and gels with capsaicin, salicylate, camphor, eucalyptus oil, and menthol. Applying ice or heat directly to the area helps to decrease swelling and inflammation, and ease stiffness and discomfort. Applying heat dilates blood vessels and increases the oxygen supply to lower muscle spasms. Cold reduces inflammation by contracting blood vessels to decreasing blood flow to the area.

Although no specific exercises are particularly effective in making back and neck pain better, exercises to stretch the back, hip and shoulder muscles and strengthen abdominal muscles lower stiffness and increase mobility. If the pain persists beyond two weeks, exercise only after consulting a physiotherapist, who may suggest specific ones that target the problem causing the pain, such as spine problems that can decrease the spaces between the vertebrae and/or add pressure on the nerves.

The best way to carry a heavy bag is to not carry a big bag, so perhaps it’s time you learnt to make do with a smartphone and a no-fuss wallet.