Handbag Ergonomics – Part 1

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Musculoskeletal Consumer Review recently caught up with Cheryl Ng, an Associate Principal Physiotherapist at Core Concepts. We were curious about the term, ‘handbag syndrome’. that Cheryl mentioned during her recent interview by Lian He Wan Bao on pains from carrying big handbags.

MCR: Are heavy bags a potential cause of shoulder and neck aches? Why?

handbag ergonomics

Cheryl Ng: Big handbags are in fashion for a couple of years now, so inevitably the amount of content these bags carry grows (i.e. Camera, mobile phone, make-up, wallet, laptop, umbrella, water bottle etc). That is the rise of heavier handbags and typically such a bag can weigh 3kg or more. Over at Core Concepts, we noted increasing cases of shoulder and neck pains due to heavy handbags usage also known as “handbag syndrome”. Though such syndrome affects mainly women, men do get such pains as there are rising trends of men who carry heavy bags (eg laptop bag).

A heavy handbag, shoulder bag, or purse can injure the neck, back and shoulders. The neck has a natural curve that evenly distributes forces on the spine. Hence, when a person carries a heavy bag on one side over a long period of time, this natural curve starts to get distorted which can lead to chronic neck and shoulder pains, back pain, and even headaches. Left untreated, it can lead to more serious injuries such as herniated discs and accelerated degeneration of the cervical spine.

MCR: What weight (of bags) is considered to be too heavy to be carried on the shoulder, and for what duration?

Cheryl: Typically, it is advised that the weight of the handbags/ shoulder bags/ laptop bags should not weigh more than 10-15 percent of your body weight. Also, check by feeling the bag on our shoulder. When you sling the bag on your shoulder, and it feels uncomfortable, especially when the weight pulling shoulder down, it is time to downsize or reduce the contents in your bag. However, I recommend lighter bags (contents included), not more than 2-3 kg as we tend to carry such bags frequently and over a extended period of time (travelling to work and back home, shopping) which can change the biomechanics of the neck , back and shoulders and lead to pain and dysfunction.

MCR: What serious problems can be caused if bags are too heavy? And what physiotherapy can be done to alleviate the aches?

Cheryl: A common problem is that one shoulder becomes slightly higher than the other. Some scenarios such as talking on mobile while carrying the heavy handbag, will worsens the problem, because in addition to balancing too much weight on one side, she is lifting the shoulder at the same time, straining the neck and shoulder ligaments and muscles.

Typically, handbag syndrome brings about neck, shoulder muscles and ligaments strain/ injuries, causing poor neck and shoulder postures. Left untreated, these can lead to more serious injuries such as herniated discs, accelerated degeneration of the spine and less commonly, traction injury of the brachial plexus, which symptoms are weakness and sensation changes (i.e. numbness over the shoulder and arm).

Physiotherapy can help resolve these pains by analyzing the structure of the your body, such as how does your head sits on your shoulders or how your posture could have brought about the biomechanical changes in your neck and shoulders causing pains. To reduce the stiffness, pain and discomfort brought about by these changes, physiotherapists apply various strategies in the restoration of spinal and shoulder girdle mobility and stability that results in a reduction in the patient’s pain and spasm. Strategies include manual techniques, such as joint mobilization and manipulation, deep tissue massage, muscle energy technique and neck and shoulder girdle stabilization exercises.

However, treatment is always more effective if the problem is detected and treated early as chronic problems (more than 3 months) have poorer treatment results. Therefore, if the pain does not resolve within 3 days and seems to get worse, it is time to make an appointment with your physiotherapist.

Some tips in choosing a handbag that is ergonomical.

  1. Choose a handbag that is proportionate to your body size and not larger than what is needed. Your handbag should not weigh more than 10 percent or less of your body weight.
  2. Select a bag made of lightweight material such as vinyl or canvas instead of leather.
  3. The shoulder straps should be wide, adjustable, and padded if possible. Poorly designed shoulder straps can dig deep into muscles causing strain and pinched nerves. If possible, select a strap that is long enough to sling across to the opposite side of the body to help distribute weight of the bag more evenly.
  4. Do consider a backpack. It distributes the weight between both shoulders.
  5. Choose a handbag that has several individual pockets instead of one large compartment. This will help to distribute the weight evenly and keep contents of the bag from shifting.
  6. Do not wait to seek treatment for pain. You can avoid serious injury and surgery by addressing the problem early.

Carrying a handbag.

  1. Use both hands to check the weight of the handbag.
  2. Instead of always carrying your handbag on the same shoulder, switch sides often.
  3. Retract your shoulders while carrying the bag.


Don’t carry a handbag? Read our article here on other bags. Experiencing neck pain? Click here to find out more about physiotherapy for neck pain relief and how Core Concepts can help

The interview continues in Heel Ergonomics – Part II