Back Pain

Updated 14 February 2017

Can your bag cause back pain?

Handbags, school bags, laptop bags, shopping bags… We all carry a bag at some point, but have you ever stopped to consider how heavy it is and the damage it could be doing to your back?

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Experts suggest that you shouldn’t carry more than 10% of your body weight in a bag – it creates an imbalance in your posture, straining the muscles in your back and neck. 

Battle of the sexes

Women are often guilty of carrying around large handbags filled with all sorts of things – but, if you’re a woman who weighs 60kg, you may want to weigh your handbag and make sure it weighs 6kg (preferably much less). Do a daily “bag-edit” and remove anything you don’t actually need to keep it as light as possible.

For men, be aware of how heavy your wallet is – carrying it in your back pocket disrupts the balance of your pelvis and spine, which in time can contribute to arthritis. Aim to keep the thickness of your wallet under 0.5cm – get rid of accumulated receipts, only carry the cards you need and avoid having wads of small bills. 

Starting young

Your child’s school bag should also err on the lighter side, again following the 10% of body weight rule. According to Dr Robert Delgado, wellness expert and chiropractor at Delgado Chiropractic in Sea Point, Cape Town, children who carry heavy school bags develop a forward head posture as they hinge forward at the hips to compensate for the heavy weight on their back. “This strains the muscles, and in turn pushes the body to go into an unnatural posture alignment.”

Children may not show symptoms or experience pain straight away, but in the long term they can develop imbalances affecting the health of the nervous system. 

Damaging your back

A study by the University of California used MRI images to find out how heavy backpacks can cause damage to children’s backs. The result was that “backpack loads are responsible for a significant amount of back pain in children, which in part, may be due to changes in lumbar disc height or curvature”. 

Make sure your child has a high quality back pack with shoulder pads, carried on both shoulders and not just one.

Lighten the load

Susan Grobler, a physiotherapist based in Pretoria, says: “Musculoskeletal disorders are one of the leading causes of disability, and are related to our sedentary lifestyle. We need to be more active to improve our flexibility and strength. Prevention of muscle-related pain is the key.” 

Here are her tips for protecting your back when it comes to carrying bags. 

1. Bags in general
The lighter your bag, the better. We are designed to move without restrictions. We should walk like soldiers, swinging both arms. Any bag that restricts this movement can create a problem, especially if it’s too heavy or being used for long periods. 

2. Laptop bag or backpack? 
Preferably you should use neither because laptops are generally quite heavy. However, if this is your only choice, opt for a backpack as it allows you to move both arms freely. 

3. How bad is it for your back to only use one strap on a backpack? 
This is never a good idea but keep in mind that the weight and duration of carrying a bag also plays a role. A light bag, carried for a short period, that doesn’t limit movement or cause discomfort is generally okay if it only has one strap.

4. What’s the best way to pack your child’s school bag? 
Pack the books at the bottom and the lunch at the top. Always make sure your child uses both straps on their backpack. 

5. What exercises can we do to strengthen our back and core? 
Stand up and bend backwards every 30 minutes during your office day. Walking, like a soldier, is the best exercise. This is natural and safe; it helps prevent osteoporosis, helps digestion and improves your cardiovascular system.

Read more: 

Exercise helps prevent back pain in children

4 ways to strengthen your back

10 ways to fix your back pain



 

Ask the Expert

Backache expert

Susan qualified as a Physiotherapist in 1990, and completed her master’s degree in Physiotherapy in 2013 at the University of Pretoria. She has a special interest in human biomechanics, as well as the interaction between domestic and work-related ergonomics.

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