Is Carrying a Bag Bad for Your Back?

A bad back is one of the most common health complaints that many of us experience these days. This will affect the lower spine in many cases (especially when you’re sleeping/when you first wake up) but it can also result in pain in the upper back, the shoulders and elsewhere.

There are many different causes for this back pain. One of the main contributors is the way you sit at work, but there are also many other small factors that all add up to potential issues; any of which might make all the difference if you can change them by altering your routine or habits. Case in point: carrying a heavy bag around with you everywhere you go. Could this be responsible for your aching back?

Problems Caused by Heavy Bags

Carrying a heavy bag can create a number of potential problems for your back and your health in general, and this is determined both by the type of bag you carry as well as how heavy said bag is, and how often you are carrying it.

Shoulder Bags

One of the more common types of heavy bags people tend to carry is the shoulder bag. Shoulder bags are convenient and look better with smart attire when compared with a backpack. These are bags that are appropriate for work and for nights out, and that won’t get in the way when you’re on the tube or at the store.

Problem is that a heavy shoulder bag places an uneven strain on your spine, core and legs which forces you to brace yourself in order to remain upright and to maintain a good centre of balance. Specifically this requires you to engage muscles in your core involved with maintaining an upright posture (against lateral pressure) which means working the obliques as well as the quadratus lumborum. The obliques are the muscles next to your abs which you use in order to torque your body and to bend from side-to-side. Meanwhile the quadratus lumborum runs from the bottom of your back to the middle and again is used for bending from side to side.

So if you have a heavy bag pulling on one side, this is going to force you to work those muscles. In the short term this can lead to soreness, but in the long term it could lead to an imbalance if you’re prone to regularly keeping the bag on one side. This imbalance could then lead to further back problems in the long term. In the worst case scenarios this could contribute to scoliosis – a condition in which the spine is curved sideways.

Meanwhile being heavier on one side will make it harder for you to walk with the optimal gait. You may place one foot down harder, which could put more strain on one knee and/or one hip.

Meanwhile having a strap that digs into your muscle (the traps which poke up either side of the neck) can also cause both acute and chronic pain in the long term.

Backpacks

A backpack is thought by many to be the healthier and comfier option when compared with a shoulder bag, but just how true is this?

Well the good news is that carrying a backpack won’t put uneven weight on one side of your back – so no scoliosis and no uneven quadratus lumborum. But at the same time it isn’t perfect as it pulls you backwards instead. This then means that you’re working your core to try and keep yourself upright, as well as rolling your shoulders forward and tightening your pectorals. Overall this can contribute to kyphosis – where you hunch over forwards – which is an issue many of us already face thanks to long hours in the office. You may also tilt your neck forward leading to potential neck pain, and further stretch your erector spinae which are responsible for keeping your back straight.

How to Mitigate Damage

So neither a shoulder bag nor a backpack is perfect. Sadly though most of us don’t have the option to go into work without our bags.

Instead then we should look for compromises that can help us to reduce the amount of stress bags are causing.

• Carry a bag in your hand – Although this might seem like the most effort in the short term, it is actually by far the healthiest in the long term. Now you’ll be working your arm mostly which won’t alter your posture. If you are buying a new shoulder bag, get one with a handle so that you can at least give your back occasional breaks.

• Use a fanny pack/bum bag – I’m going to struggle to convince the fashion conscious among you to consider using a fanny pack… still though, if you were to, you would find that it took the strain off of your spine while also forcing you to be more selective with what you chose to carry.

• Keep it light – If you are carrying around huge empty water bottles, books that you never read, heavy laptops and spare shoes… then you are putting serious bad strain on your posture. Every now and then it’s good to have a clear out – and to make sensible choices when it comes to the things that you probably don’t really need. If you haven’t used it in the last week it can go. People who don’t carry bags survive without these things, so can you! Oh and don’t make the mistake of thinking that small things don’t matter as it all adds up pretty quickly… This study recommends keeping it below 10% of your bodyweight where possible (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20019396).

• Use big straps – Larger straps spread the pressure evenly across your muscles thereby reducing the strain and preventing the cutting. Using two straps is also a good idea.

• Use the right position – If you must carry a shoulder bag, then keep it low down (long straps) and closer to your body. According to studies (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21356532) this will reduce the impact on your posture.

• Swap sides – Finally if you’re carrying a shoulder bag, then make sure to switch sides regularly and to attempt to spend about even time on each side.

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