The Handbag Trap

Shoulder injuries and chronic shoulder pain are fast becoming one of the most prominent complaints in our clinic. It’s a natural progression to wonder what the possible causes might be. Shoulder injuries & pain can often seem to appear out of thin air with no known trigger. Through investigation & discussion with a few of our female patients suffering with shoulder injuries, it had us wondering whether their daily interaction with their handbags could be part of the problem.

There are a variety of different shoulder injuries that are most common, so we’re just going to keep the subject very broad and general here.

It’s recommended that you get your specific case investigated in a one-on-one setting.

We commonly see poor shoulder mechanics combined with poor scapular stability in patients with chronic shoulder pain. Poor mechanics usually involve several years of bad technique that eventually culminates in an improper motor pattern being created and then repeated over and over again. It’s possible that one of those poor pattern creating activities is carrying a handbag. If you walk through a busy shopping centre or through the CBD you will notice an abundance of people carrying hand bags on their shoulders. This practice is not restricted to women but females would likely make up the greater proportion at risk.
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The Handbag Trap

The best default posture for your shoulders are for them to be “back and down.” People presenting with persisting shoulder injuries tend to have compromised posture where the shoulders are pulled forward due to weakness in the posterior shoulder muscles.

If you were to carry a bag with a shoulder strap and keep your shoulders “back and down” you would likely have to continually adjust the strap on your shoulder to prevent the bag from slipping, falling to the floor and revealing all your secret goodies to the other shopping centre patrons. In order to compensate, it’s natural to engage the trapezius muscle that elevates the shoulder to create a nice little nook for the shoulder strap to rest on without any risk for embarrassment.

A secondary concern is that the heavier the bag is, the greater the recruitment of trapezius needs to become. If you’re carrying a heavy shoulder bag for a long period of time the trapezius will have to go through a tonne of work possibly resulting in over dominance of the traps and the shoulders being pulled up instead of “back and down”.
The Imbalance Issue

Another confounding factor that we have noticed is that handbags are often preferably carried on one side or the other. In fact, from the small sample size that we’ve asked and observed, most people usually favour one shoulder for their handbag which results in a repeated pattern of muscular imbalance. For example, if the left shoulder was preferred, the left trapezius would develop stronger and overactive relative to the right. This may result in an uneven load on each shoulder blade and neck which can lead to chronic pain.

Muscle imbalance is a real area of concern and is often highlighted in people suffering chronic pain and/or injury. Our bodies like and prefer to be symmetrical, a repeat stress unilaterally (on one side) could negatively affect the body’s optimal functioning.
The Solution

Avoid handbags where possible – use pockets, carry less stuff or distribute necessary items with others (eg. carry one phone with your partner, or move your bank cards into one wallet before you go out)
Don’t carry too much unnecessary weight in your bag – regularly go through your bag and ensure that extra baggage is left at home.
Switch shoulders – don’t favour one side over the other, be weary of muscle imbalance and try to switch shoulders throughout the day.
Maintain good posture – Be aware of your posture when carrying a bag, shrugging on one side is not ideal and try to stand and walk as naturally as possible even with a handbag on.
Engage in regular exercise – if your shoulders and scapula are strong and well controlled, you are less likely to experience pain and injury resulting from activities of daily living. Don’t wait until the pain is debilitating, get stronger and reduce your risk of shoulder injuries.

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