This article was originally published in Positive Health issue 77 – June 2002
In Greek mythology, the Titan Atlas, having angered Zeus, was forced to hold up the sky – a Herculean task if ever there was one. As the heavens were at that time thought to be spherical, artists mistakenly depicted Atlas holding a globe. In anatomy, the first vertebra of the neck has been named ‘atlas’ as it supports another kind of globe – the skull – which, with its 15 to 20 pounds, requires to be maintained in balance lest the neck muscles should work too hard.
Like the titanic Atlas, we also bear a heavy burden. Not only do we carry all the worries of the world on our shoulders but, in our capitalistic, materialistic, consumerist and workaholic societies, we also carry many possessions with us and on us. Although not homeless, we tend to behave like bag people, carrying a good share of our assets in bags of various shapes and sizes: carrier bags, handbags, shoulder bags, rucksacks, backpacks and so on.
This attachment to things is no bagatelle. Carrying these daily is not good for our back – from atlas to sacrum, not only our spine, but indeed our whole body, suffers as a result of being used as a beast of burden. And this problem starts early in life as kids nowadays go to school carrying overloaded rucksacks full of heavy textbooks. The electronic revolution has not yet been able to make paper a thing of the past. And even if this happens one day, we still will have to carry our laptops.
The postural problems caused by carrying things have more to do with our carrying customs than with the weight of the load (although there are limits to the weight we can carry with impunity whatever the means of porterage adopted). The ubiquitous rucksack, for example, is an invention that seems to have been designed to rack and wrack our backs. Observe heavily rucksacked people and you will see that, in order to counteract the weight on their back, they bend their upper back forwards, and consequently, to be able to see where they are going, they tilt their heads back and crane their necks in an alarming way. No back can bear this shortening treatment for too long. If the rucksack is loosely slung, allowing it to pull backwards away from the torso, you can get what is known as ‘trekker’s shoulder’, a form of thoracic outlet syndrome. In this condition, caused by compression of the upper nerve roots and trunks of the brachial plexus or the subclavian artery, symptoms can take the form of paraesthesia (abnormal tingling sensations of the pins and needles kind), diffuse aching and weakness in the arms. Poor posture alone can cause this syndrome but carrying a rucksack may dramatically and rapidly create the posture that leads to this condition. If you fancy being a backpacker, make sure that your rucksack is properly packed with the heaviest items at the top, that the shoulder straps are sufficiently tightened so that your rucksack is close to your body, and that you fasten the waist belt that forms part of any decent design.
Carrying heavy shoulder bags can lead to crooked shoulders. The weight makes us tighten the muscles around the shoulder (the upper trapezius, for example) which then goes up and, sometimes, forwards as well. When the shoulder goes up, the spine follows its movement and ends up crooked too. Learn how to carry your shoulder bag without tensing your shoulder muscles. Failure to do so means that your bag is too heavy for you. If you have one shoulder higher than the other, carry your shoulder bag on the lower one in order to counteract this lack of symmetry; it’s not a licence to hunch the low shoulder but an incentive to balance the whole shoulder girdle.
Unless you have only a few light items, don’t carry all your shopping on one side but divide your load equally between two bags. Not only will it allow you to distribute the weight between your right and left sides and so prevent any lateral bending of the body but it will also prevent you from answering your mobile phone or starting on your baguette! A common mistake when carrying bags is to raise the shoulder(s) as if you had to carry the bags AND your arms. Don’t hold up your shoulders; rather let them hang freely from the shoulder girdle. It’s not as easy as it sounds and requires you to keep your body aligned with the vertical, in other words, that you learn the good use of yourself.
The fact remains that all these kinds of porterage, even with a load on each side, are not ideal. The arms are stretched by the weight, and, if one is not careful, the shoulders and upper back can end up rounded, with the head retracted backwards. Perhaps, in order to prevent our arms from becoming too long and our neck too short, we should campaign for a revival of carrying customs that are better adapted to human morphology. We could use the coolie’s pole, the human yoke or shoulder piece, or, even better, we could carry things directly on our head, like Perrette in La Fontaine’s Fables who:
“…a pot of milk upon her head
Firm on its little cushion set,
With step assured to market sped.”
Or like caryatids and atlantes. A caryatid is a female figure used as a column or pilaster to support an entablature (male figures are called atlantes after Atlas). These beautiful sculptures of architectural function are thought to have originated in ancient Greece. They were fashionable in Europe from the Renaissance onwards and you still can spot and admire them in some buildings.
In my opinion, the best way of carrying is on the head and this will be the subject of my next column when I will explore its many benefits. In the meantime, don’t let parcels become part and parcel of your everyday life…