As unflattering as it may sound, I’ve always considered myself to be, well, a bag lady. It dates back to college, when I’d leave my dorm for the day with a boatload of stuff because I had packed my schedule with so much that there was never time to run back to my room. The nasty habit carried over to adulthood, when I moved to New York City and took up residency in Queens.
Now, as I leave for work in Manhattan every day, I have to have everything I might need—workout gear, sneakers, a change of clothes, beauty products, snacks, a water bottle, my laptop and charger, even a book to read on the subway. Add in anything I might pick up throughout the day (like, err, my lunch), and it’s safe to say my bag is constantly overstuffed.
Problem is, like many women, I was carting all of my crap in a tote bag. And yes, I’ve been told to “switch shoulders” over and over, but come on—who really does that? Not I. And for no particular reason other than it feels weird, so I just don’t do it.
But about eight months ago, I started noticing out-of-the-ordinary shoulder pain. It wasn’t soreness from a hardcore upper-body workout, but more of a nagging pain that I felt while sitting at my laptop (a reminder not to hunch over it), when running errands, even while lying in bed. Eventually, the pain became so severe that I started to lose fitness gains. I realized I could no longer do assisted pull-ups—an accomplishment I had worked really hard to achieve—and push-ups started to feel like a struggle.
I tried everything to fix the problem—consultations with sports doctors and physical therapists (and exercises they prescribed), massage balls, sports massage, even acupuncture. Some of these things helped—and are still helping—but the pain didn’t let up. That is, until I finally admitted my biggest problem: the tote bag.
Thankfully, my shoulder pain flared at a time when backpacks are back in fashion. So I finally made the switch. I tried a bunch of different styles, and while most of them were fine, I fell in love with this Sweaty Betty All Sport Backpack ($115, sweatbetty.com). It’s chic enough that I can wear it to work and not feel like a little kid heading off to school. Plus, the scuba suit-style fabric feels soft against my sore shoulder, and the straps are nice and wide, meaning I don’t have to worry about them digging in and wreaking more havoc. The pockets provide plenty of storage options, so my small phone charger doesn’t get buried underneath my sweaty gym clothes.
Robert Hayden, D.C., Ph.D., and spokesperson for the American Chiropractic Association, says using a backpack is one of the smartest, easiest decisions I could make, especially because I was already seeing such noticeable fitness deficits. “I have seen patients who carry loads on a shoulder to the point of producing curvatures in the chest,” he explains. “In a worst-case scenario, if left untreated, there could be an injury to the nerves in that arm, which can result in numbness and tingling in the hand, and possibly loss of muscle strength. Additionally, there may be alignment issues that affect the function of the shoulder joint.”
Sheesh. Sounds like a lot, but that’s because tote bags, over time, “may cause pressure on the nerves [in your arm], reduce circulation in the underlying muscles, or [lead to] muscle strain from sustained imbalanced resistance,” says Hayden. Which means that cute tote bag isn’t as innocent as you think.
Bryan Lang, C.S.C.S., D.P.T., a physical therapist at Whole Body Health Physical Therapy in Portland, Oregon, agrees. “When you use a tote bag, the shoulder and hand holding the bag has to be constantly engaged,” he says. “As a result, the upper trapezius muscle has to work harder and can become tighter because of it. Tight muscles often send pain signals as a warning that they are being overworked.”
Still, I couldn’t just shove my crap in a backpack and call it a day. Hayden says there’s a smart way to strategize packing so that the backpack works to evenly distribute weight—ultimately limiting an uneven pull on the spine, and reducing compression in the shoulder. First, put heavy, hard items close to your spine, as that prevents irritation and keeps them off the shoulder blades (which move as you walk). But don’t load them in the bottom of the bag. Instead, place closer to the top while still being realistic—you don't want to crush your stuff. Hayden says that puts the weight on the hips instead of the low back, and the hips are better designed to handle a heavy load.
When you put the pack on, Hayden says to line it up so it’s close and high on the back (you shouldn’t be leaning forward—that can cause back pain). And keep the straps tight, yet comfortable, so the pack doesn’t sway as you walk. Last, “place items you may need quickly in smaller, side compartments, or attach them to the outside of the pack for convenience,” adds Hayden. “Once you have the pack on, you don’t want to have to take it off repeatedly to get things.”
As for the weight of my bag—well, Hayden had some bad news for me: “Consolidate. The rule of thumb is that the backpack should not exceed 10 percent of your body weight,” he says. So I had to make some sacrifices: I now leave my heavy books at home, opting for the Kindle app on my phone instead. And I gave myself permission to upgrade to a lighter laptop, which also has enough battery power to last throughout the day—no charger necessary.
At the end of the day, switching to a backpack was one of the easiest—and most successful—ways to ease my chronic shoulder pain. I may not be able to shake off my bag lady status, but at least I’ve finally figured out a pain-free way to live with it.