Lipstick. Snacks. Toys. Eyeliner. Running shoes. Wallets full of change. Even laptops. You’d be amazed at the truckload of stuff a woman carries around in her purse. But it’s what many women— especially moms—do every day.

Kerry Struif, a mom and grandmother in Alton, Ill., is typical of many women on the go. A marketing manager for the Foundation for Wellness Professionals, she carries two smart phones, a tablet, notebooks and a calendar, as well as her wallet, cosmetics and her favorite pens in an average-sized tote bag with handles and a strap.

Struif considers herself perfectly capable of handling the heavy lifting, but there still are times when her body says it’s time to call it quits, and put down the excess baggage. She often wonders whether the pain she sometimes feels stems from all the things she carries, or if the purse itself is the culprit. “Sometimes my neck and shoulders hurt,” Struif says. “I’m not sure if my purse is the cause of my problem, but it certainly contributes to it.”

Like many women, Struif wants to be ready for anything at a moment’s notice, and it leads to hefting around a big bag. But this “be prepared” mentality comes with a price—one you can’t pay for from your wallet.

Research shows the size and shape of a bag, the length of its straps, and even the material it’s made from can make for a heavy and harmful combination on the muscles, nerves and ligaments. Plus, constantly shifting your posture can cause headaches, back and neck pain, and shoulder and elbow aches.

But you don’t have to leave your home with just the bare essentials. Learn how to lighten your load, stop straining your back and shoulders, and still have everything you need.

Don’t ignore the creep

It’s tempting to bring everything you want, rather than choose only what you need, but extra weight can stretch out essential bag-carrying muscles. Carry a heavy load for a long time, and you’ll be exhausted afterward. You might even develop muscle aches and nerve pain.

Dr. Christina Faccin is a chiropractor with Faccin Chiropractic Clinic in Wood River, Ill. She says over time, the added weight from a purse damages the upper and lower back, and shoulder and neck muscles, causing excessive wear and tear, arthritis, disc bulges and herniation. “It’s called muscle creep. Muscles slowly become elongated from the pressure of a heavy purse,” she says.

A too-heavy purse can also cause tension headaches. When the shoulder becomes depressed or pulled, muscles will contract to hold up the arm being pulled down by the weight of the purse. This causes a counterbalance on the neck muscles, which leads to strain, Faccin says.

When a woman consistently carries her purse on one shoulder, it’s going to dam- age her posture. The asymmetry between the purse-laden shoulder and the free shoulder eventually forces the body into a “C” curvature. Faccin says she once saw a patient who had one shoulder lower than the other because of how she’d been carrying her purse.

It’s similar to what happens in yoga. When you first start yoga, you aren’t very flexible, but the more you stretch, the more you soften the tissues. Muscle creep involves the same principle, she says.

Over time, the muscles stretch and our torsos can shift to one side. We lean to counteract the weight of the purse. If you carry your purse on your left shoulder, the weight pulls the shoulder down and your pelvis shifts over to the right, creating the C curve. But you have to have your bag, so what’s a gal to do? “We should alter our habits,” Faccin says. “Carry lighter purses. Switch sides every 20 minutes, so you aren’t holding your bag on just one side.”

And if you don’t want to watch the clock, just listen to your body. The body knows when it’s feeling pain or discomfort, Faccin says, so give in to the subconscious instinct to switch sides.

It’s not just a muscle game, either. Our nerves feel the effects of heavy and poor purses, too. Tight, narrow straps that dig into the shoulders will cause tingling and numbness in the arms and hands. “The best way to mitigate this is to use a purse with a wider strap or a backpack purse,” Faccin says.

To find relief for these aches and pains, Faccin recommends applying heat, getting spinal adjustments, or getting a trigger-point massage. A trigger-point massage releases constricted areas in the muscles, alleviating pain and restoring mobility to the muscle. “Trigger points are areas of muscular spasms that are about the size of a dime or quarter, what people generally call knots,” she says. “These can be quite painful.”

Try to tote smart

The best way to carry a purse is to keep it close to your body and higher up near your underarm by your rib cage. That way, your arm helps support the purse. “If it hangs low, we’ll subconsciously lean to tuck it in closer to us,” Faccin says. “So keep the straps short. Tie or adjust the straps, so they’re shorter. You want to put the purse in the crook of your waist, not hip level, so it’s not pulling you sideways.”

In recent years, a new syndrome has shown up in medical offices: Poshitis. Named for former Spice Girl-turned-fashion designer Victoria Beckham, it refers to the back and neck pain women get from carrying a heavy purse in the crook of their arm, like Beckham often does.

Holding your bag in this position damages your body, Faccin says. Your elbows were designed to be moving joints, not hooks for your purse. It’s not only tiring, but it can damage the radial nerve in the thumb, as well as the elbows. And the forearm muscles can end up stiff and sore after being in the same hooked position for a long time, too. “The muscles in the forearm are all that are protecting the nerves. The forearm is thin, so there isn’t a lot there to protect them,” Faccin says.

Lighten your load

Ladies, you can get rid of the excess baggage, and keep your body from being a twisted mess. Any time you grab your purse to head out the door, think about what you really need to carry, says Robin Harsis, a professional organizer in Ontario, N.Y.

“Maintenance of any organizing system is a must for it to function properly,” Harsis says. “Throw out garbage, take out items that do not belong, and purge unneeded receipts and expired coupons. This can be done while standing in line at the grocery store, waiting for an appointment, or waiting to pick up your kids from soccer practice.”

Dump everything out of your purse, and start the de-junking process by tossing out the trash. Moms tend to accumulate receipts, tissues, gum wrappers and other scraps of paper throughout the day, so create a system to throw it all away at the end of each day. It might seem small, but it all adds up.

Sort everything else into two piles—must-haves and nice-to-haves. Essentials such as a wallet and cell phone can go in first, but think about whether you need less-important items such as sunglasses, phone chargers and several lipsticks. Every woman will have a different answer based on her own lifestyle and needs, Harsis says.

To corral the stuff you decide to keep, Harsis recommends using the “bag within a bag” system. “Besides my wallet, I have a bag I keep my coupons in and a small cosmetic bag that holds my gum, Chapstick, mirror and so on,” she says. “That gives you boundaries. It keeps everything tidy. However many bags you use, they should all fit readily and easily into your purse. You shouldn’t have to cram them all in there. We have a tendency to stuff it all in.”

Moms whose purses double as diaper bags or family carryalls can use a bigger bag, she says. “But the process still applies. So if you have snacks and small toys, you’d have them in a separate bag,” Harsis says.

The big bag syndrome

Oversized bags might be trendy, and it’s fun to see how much stuff can fit inside. But they’re rotten for the back, shoulders and neck. Recent research shows these bags cause the most damage because many are almost impossible to carry on one shoulder. “The style now is the larger purse, so we throw in toys, wallets, our husbands’ stuff, water bottles. People don’t realize how heavy water bottles are,” Faccin says. “We’re lugging everything around. We put our bodies into all sorts of positions as we carry them, and try to maneuver through doors.”

Many women have caught onto the trend to not only to keep up with the latest styles, but to satisfy their need to have everything within arm’s reach. Faccin says you can be prepared without sacrificing the health of your back and shoulders. “If you really feel a need to carry a lot of stuff, put an organizer in the trunk or back seat of your car,” Faccin says. “Then if you find you need something, you can then go out from the store or restaurant and get it.”

Faccin knows firsthand how these things can add up. She has a young son, and constantly carries his things, as well as her own. So she uses her own system to try to alleviate the amount she’s lugging around at any one time. “I carry a smaller clutch, so if I have to go into the store, it has my essentials—wallet, phone and credit cards,” she says.

And if you need to, no matter how silly you may think you look, just carry two bags. Your shoulders, neck and arms will thank you for it in the long-term. “It’s better to have two equally sized bags, one on each shoulder,” she says.

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