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Health & Exercise Forum

Women's Purses and Back Pain

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Sep 20, 2010


Dr. Mackarey's Health & Exercise ForumMany of you may know young Annie Lavelle, former Scranton Prep athletic standout who now is entering her senior year at The University of Scranton. Anne came to me last week with complaints of severe middle and lower back pain. On her first visit, I carried her purse (big bag), to the treatment room to assess its weight. Then, I asked her permission to weight the bag and discovered that it weighed 8 pounds. Anne is a very slight, 120 pound young women and would be advised to carry a 2.5 to 3.5 pound bag, (2-3% of her body weight).

A recent study shows that the average weight of a woman’s purse has increased by 38% and now exceeds 6 pounds. In spite of technological advances, women have not found a way to simplify their lives, or at least what they think they need in their lives. High tech gadgets have only added weight to a purse already filled to the brim.

On a whim, I decided to ask permission to examine the contents of some of my patient’s purses. A typical purse includes the following: hairbrush, cosmetic bag, mirror, feminine products, keys, and sunglasses, reading glasses, checkbook, wallet, coupons, water bottle, and medications. Additionally, I discovered heavy high tech products such as cellular phones, MP3 players, digital cameras, Bluetooth earpieces, and rechargers. Lastly, some women add the weight of a book or Kindle to the bag. Studies also show that the larger the bag and stronger the straps, the more items are stuffed in, resulting in a very heavy purse.

It is a pervasive attitude that a woman should never be stranded without her purse full of essentials. So, where is the problem? The problem is that carrying a heavy bag, usually on one side of the body, forces the body to tilt forward and in the opposite direction to compensate. Overtime, this change in posture leads to neck, middle and lower back pain.

Signs that Your Purse is Too Heavy

  1. Change in posture when carrying the purse: The weight forces you to tip forward or to the opposite side to compensate.
  2. Struggling when putting on or taking off the purse: Due to a purse that is too heavy or straps that don’t fit properly.
  3. Pain when carrying or after carrying the purse.
    1. Due to a purse that is too heavy or straps that don’t fit properly
    2. Neck, middle and lower back pain, headaches and muscle spasms.
    3. Shoulder or arm pain can also be associated with a heavy bag.
  4. Tingling or numbness – in the arms or hands
  5. Red marks – on the shoulder

Healthy Purse Use

Consider the following suggestions to promote healthy use of a purse and prevent injury:

  1. Limit Weight of Purse to 2% of Body Weight. Get on a scale without your purse, and then get on with your purse to see the difference.
  2. Clean It Out! Makeup, keys, planner, date book, address book, brush, cell phone, recharger, MP3 player, etc. Clean it out! Get rid of heavy coins. Use technology and consider getting a cellular phone that is also an MP3 player with a calendar and contact list. Recharge your phone in the car. Use a separate purse for some nonessential items and leave it in the car.
  3. Buy a Small Purse. Weigh your purse when it is completely empty. Some purses are too heavy, even without contents. Buy a small and light-weight purse.
  4. Ergonomic Bags: Padded Adjustable Shoulder Straps or Messenger Bag Style. If carrying a big bag, use a strap that is long enough to distribute weight evenly across the side your hip like a messenger bag.
  5. Purse Weight Distributed to Small of Back/Hips: using adjustable straps
  6. Not all the weight on shoulders and upper back
  7. Remove The Purse When Possible while waiting for bus, etc
  8. Change Shoulders: Every 15 -20 minutes, change the purse strap from one shoulder to the other to balance out the stress on the spine.
  9. Stand Erect and Arch Small of Back: The correct posture while carrying heavy items is to make a hollow or arch the small of your back
  10. Perform Posture/Stretching Exercises: Pinch shoulder blades together and extend and arch your spine backwards intermittently throughout the day – especially every time you take your pack off

This article is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. If you have questions related to your medical condition, please contact your family physician. For further inquires related to this topic email:

Paul J. Mackarey PT, DHSc, OCS is a Doctor in Health Sciences specializing in orthopaedic and sports physical therapy. Dr. Mackarey is in private practice and is an affiliated faculty member at the University of  Scranton, PT Dept.