Is Your Purse Causing Your Back, Neck and Shoulder Pain? A Physical Therapist’s Perspective + What To Do About It!

Is Your Purse Causing Your Back, Neck and Shoulder Pain? A Physical Therapist’s Perspective + What To Do About It!

Is Your Purse Causing You Pain Graphic

I confess. I’ve let my purse contents get, well… out of hand.  And as a physical therapist, I know better!  My purse has turned into a Mary Poppins bag of sorts over the past few months. It’s all too easy to do.  I decided I needed to do something when I spent a day out with friends and came home with neck and shoulder pain plus an awful tension headache.

Carrying a purse the wrong way or one that’s too heavy can cause a whole host of problems. Repetitively lugging around a heavy handbag on the same side of your body can cause neck and shoulder pain because those areas of your body were not meant to bear weight in that way.  This can lead to stiffness, spasms and tension headaches.  In some cases, it can cause or exacerbate a serious condition called thoracic outlet syndrome in which the blood vessels and nerves in the shoulder are compressed.  Heavy handbags not only affect your upper body, but also disrupt your natural walking gait pattern, and can even cause hip and low back pain as your muscles try to compensate for carrying a load unevenly on only one side of the body for a prolonged period.    

Even though I know all of this, I still sometimes find myself toting around too much in my bag, like I did last week.  As soon as I realized what I’d done to myself, I was quick to make a some adjustments.  Here’s a few of the changes I’ve made to my purse and its contents to keep my back, neck and shoulders happy and pain-free!


How heavy is too heavy?

  • Studies show that your handbag should weigh no more than 10% of your body weight.  (For example, if you weigh 150 lbs your purse should weigh no more than 15 lbs.)  I feel that this is still far too heavy for most women and that 5% is a much healthier percentage.   

Choose a better bag from the get-go.

  • A backpack or a crossbody-style handbag will better distribute the load across your body, instead of making one shoulder do all the work.  If you go the backpack route, make sure to wear it cinched close to your back just like we were all taught in grade school.  
  • Pick a bag with the correct straps.  Small, thin straps concentrate all the weight of your bag in one small spot on your shoulder, while wider straps spread out the load over a wider area.  And please, don’t pick a handbag with chain straps.   
  • Choose a smaller-sized bag, preferably one with some structure to help distribute the load evenly and to limit the contents you can stuff inside.

Switch your purse from side to side periodically.

  • A lot of problems can be avoided simply by changing which side you carry your handbag frequently.  I try to throw it across a different shoulder each time I pick it up.  If I’m going to be carrying it for a long period, I’ll make sure to switch sides every half hour or so.

Save weight wherever you can.

  • Buy a lighter bag.
    • While leather looks great and holds up well, it’s heavy!  Consider picking a fabric bag instead.
    • Seriously consider all of the decorative hardware that comes on some bags before purchasing.  It may look nice, but it can add several ounces to the overall weight of the purse and often doesn’t serve much purpose.
  • Decant lotions and such into smaller containers.
    • Contact lens cases and refillable travel-size toiletry bottles are great for this!
  • Consider using cards instead of cash and coins.
    • Change is heavy! I generally only carry a few dollars with me and enough change to feed a parking meter for a couple hours.  I use cards for everything else.  But… only consider this tip if you’re self-disciplined when it comes to spending.  Debt will cause you an entirely different kind of headache.

Really consider the contents.

  • If you haven’t used it in the past couple months, do you really need to be schlepping it around every day? And all of those “just in case” items? Unless you do a lot of high-fashion expeditioning, realistically, you’re never that far away from a drugstore.  

Make a “clean out station” where you set your purse when you walk in the door.

  • That way you can take out all of the things that don’t belong so they don’t accumulate in your bag, even if you don’t put them away immediately.

Consider buying duplicates to stash in your car, office, etc.

  • This one is pretty self-explanatory.  Just make sure that the items won’t melt/freeze and explode if left in a hold/cold car for an extended period.  Cleaning  hand sanitizer out of your center console isn’t fun.  I know.  

Implement a 2 bag system.

  • I’ll often use one larger bag with my laptop, books, etc. to carry to work or school.  Inside this, I’ll place a smaller clutch-sized bag with my phone and cards that I’ll carry if I go out to lunch.


I hope this helps friends!  If you try these tips and you’re still experiencing pain, consider being evaluated by a physical therapist.  They can do a full exam to get to the bottom of the issue.  You can find some great ones in your area right here!  🙂




PS- Have you tried any of these tips?  Is there anything else you would add to the list?

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