Physical Therapy: Like Santa, you’re probably carrying around heavy bags this time of year

Get in shape to carry those heavier packages in winter.

As the weather gets colder we not only want to prepare ourselves for the physical demands of winter activities, but also the daily stresses we may encounter.

You may notice that as the temperature drops your purse, bag, briefcase, or suitcase weighs a bit more. Whether you are carrying your mitts, hats, scarves, extra layers, or ski equipment, it all seems to add up, until eventually the neighborhood kids are expecting to see you and your bag in their chimney.

Although these items may be necessary to haul around there are a few things you can do to reduce the stress the new weight places on your body.

Why is this important?

A heavy bag sends extra pressure through your arm thus causing the muscles in your neck, shoulder and elbow to work harder than normal. To add to the problem, this pressure also lengthens the muscle, which places it in a mechanically disadvantaged position.

You end up with weak elongated muscles that are required to hold extra weight. Over time this stress on your muscles may lead to injury and pain.

If the bag is heavy enough, the weight can pull your shoulder downwards, putting extra pressure on the brachial plexus, or the bundle of nerves that travels through your neck and shoulder.

If these nerves are compressed you may experience symptoms of a condition known as thoracic outlet syndrome, which include pins and needles, numbness, or heaviness in your arm.

To prevent yourself from developing shoulder, arm and neck pain or relieve your current symptoms, the load you are carrying should be reduced and the muscles that allow you to elevate your shoulder should be strengthened.

One of the most significant changes you can make is to carry a backpack instead of a purse or briefcase.

A backpack distributes the weight between both arms and places the load behind the body. It decreases the amount of shoulder depression and promotes a more neutral posture.

You will want to make sure that the straps are tight enough to pull the bulk of the weight towards the upper part of your back as carrying the weight too low can hurt your lower back.

If you need to carry your bag in one arm, find one that crosses your body since this also distributes the weight to both sides of your body.

A bag with a thicker strap places less direct pressure on the joints and tendons on the top of your shoulder. Switching the arm on which you carry your bag will also help to prevent muscle length and strength imbalances.

Just as you train your leg muscles before the ski season you can also train the neck and arm muscles you use to carry a bag.

Here are a few suggestions.

Start with a shoulder elevation exercise in which you bring your shoulders up to your ear, holding for a few seconds, then slowly releasing.

You can make this harder by holding dumbbells or soup cans in your hands.

If you are ready for a challenge, try an above the head shoulder press in which you lift your arms up over your head with your thumbs touching at the top. Slowly bring yours arms back to your sides trying to control the movement of your shoulder blade. You may also use weights with this exercise but try not to use a weighted bar as this does not allow you to keep your head in a neutral position.

Although these exercises and tips can help you prevent and manage symptoms associated with carrying a heavy bag, if you are experiencing symptoms such as numbness, tingling and heaviness of your upper limb you should contact your local healthcare professional for further evaluation.

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