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May 25, 2011

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A whole big bag of tricks

TRADITIONAL Chinese medicine doctors say carrying heavy bags can strain neck, shoulder and back muscles over the long term. But there are ways to avoid these problems, writes Zhang Qian.

A cosmetics bag, small mirror, sunglasses, camera, purse, cell phone, parasol, note books, pen, napkin, keys, eye drops, band-aid, a small jacket, a bar of chocolate and an apple. Lucy Zhang feels secure when she has all those packed in her bag.

"I need cosmetics to fix my make-up, eye-drops to relieve dry contact lenses, chocolate and apple in case I get hungry, and a small jacket is always necessary after the sun sets at this time of year," says the 27 year old.

To keep all these items, of course, Zhang needs a big bag. Many other young ladies today have similar habits. Carrying a big shoulder bag with abundant "necessities" is now fashionable. But according to traditional Chinese medicine doctors, even though such bags may look good and are convenient, they can do harm over the long run.

Carrying big and heavy shoulder bags over the years can cause problems like muscle strains, inflammation in joints and spinal column distortions, according to Dr Jiang Zaifeng of the Acupuncture and Massage Department of Liangcheng Community Hospital.

"Many women's bags weigh more than 2-3 kilograms. Carrying all this weight on one shoulder with a thin leather strap puts a lot of pressure on the muscles," says Dr Jiang. "Though it won't cause much damage immediately, the habit of carrying a heavy bag in the long run can lead to muscle strains, aches in the shoulder and back or, in severe cases, damage to the spinal column."

Though it is usually the weight of the bag that causes the problems, the damage can be more severe if the same weight is carried in certain types of bags. Big shoulder bags, favored by many young women today, are actually the worst.

While carrying the bag, the muscles in the neck and shoulder have to stay contracted to prevent it from slipping off. The trapezius muscle is also pressed down by the strap. Keeping the muscles in a tensed position for the long term directly leads to aches and pains. In more severe cases, there can be partial blood deficiency, muscle spasms and more intense pain.

If a heavy bag is always carried on one shoulder, the shoulders will likely become imbalanced as one stays higher to prevent the bag from falling.

Moreover, carrying heavy single shoulder bag for long time can lead to distortion of spinal column, especially for juveniles with immature bones.

"The human body is like a balance scale," says Jiang. "Inevitably, the spinal column will bend to the side where there is more weight. The muscles on the other side naturally tense to restore the balance. This may cause muscle strains and inflammation in the long run, as well as distortion or inflammation in joints. In some severe cases, it may lead to lateral curvature."

And for those with cervical vertebra problems, carrying a heavy bag may aggravate the problem.

Heavy bags that hang on the forearm or wrist may lead to chronic wrist or elbow joint strains. In severe cases, it may lead to tennis elbow, making it difficult to carry heavy things or even wring out a towel.

Heavy messenger bags with thin straps put pressure on one shoulder and can also strain the back.

Carrying lighter bags, of course, is the easiest way to prevent long-term damage. Jiang suggests that the maximum weight someone should carry ranges from person to person considering their age and overall physical condition. Other doctors suggest a Chinese woman who weighs about 50 kilograms carry no more than 3 kilograms in a bag to prevent straining the muscles and spinal column.

"Get rid of as many unnecessary things as possible from your daily bag," says Jiang, "You don't need all those cosmetics, or at least carry smaller ones."

If it's necessary to carry so many things at one time, it is advised to divide the weight properly. For example, carry two bags in different hands or shoulders rather than one heavy bag on one side.

Generally, knapsacks are considered the best for carrying your belongings around town as both shoulders are pressed evenly and the spinal column is kept in its proper position. Still, remember to keep your spinal column straight. In addition, bags with wider straps are recommended over ones with thin straps as they pose less pressure and don't slow circulation.

Changing the way you carry a bag may also help prevent long-time stress on muscles or bones. You can alternate between shoulders, elbows, wrists and hands. Even just shifting between the two shoulders can largely decrease the damage.

Strengthening muscles with regular exercise can also help decrease damage. But do not do too much exercise in a short period.

A professional massage and tui na (message) can help relieve shoulder, neck or back pain. however, it is highly recommended that such people make adjustments in the way they carry their bag, according to Jiang.

If there is severe shoulder, neck or back pain, see a doctor.

There is an easy way to check your spinal column. Bend down and touch your toes. If the back is not flat in this position, there is likely a distortion in the spinal column that needs adjusting. If so, see a doctor.


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