by Dr Mary O’Keeffe PhD, Health Research Institute, University of Limerick
There has been a recent claim in the media that skinny jeans, handbags, coats with large fluffy hoods, high heels and backless shoes (e.g. mules) can cause back pain and that women should be careful of these items.
This was revealed following a poll performed by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA). The BCA’s poll of 1,062 women revealed that 73% had suffered back pain and the majority wore these items, for example skinny jeans.
Almost everybody worldwide will experience back pain at some point. It is as common as feeling tired or getting the sniffles; we don’t like it but it is normal to get at some point in your life and rarely dangerous. Furthermore, it is rare to find a woman in the age category tested by the poll that wouldn’t wear skinny jeans and have a bag. Most women will own some skinny jeans, a coat, high heels and most definitely a handbag!
So both back pain and wearing skinny jeans and using a handbag are very common so the answer will almost always be yes to these two questions (Have you ever had back pain? And do you wear skinny jeans?) However, just because the two things will occur together (as both are very common), this doesn’t say that one thing causes another. Claiming that skinny jeans and these other items causes back pain is poor interpretation and has no scientific basis.
It would be similar to saying that the common cold in women (which almost everybody gets at some point) is linked to skinny jeans and bags (which almost all women of a certain group will have). Or asking people with ankle pain do they wear socks and shoes (which everybody will wear) and then blaming the socks and the shoes for the ankle pain. It has no logic and is a frightening message. Such a poll cannot establish a causal relationship between clothing items and back pain and so shouldn’t be used to claim a cause.
Simply put, skinny jeans, coats with fluffy hoods, handbags, high heels and backless shoes and any other clothing item do not cause back pain. There is no scientific evidence of an association. This may seem counterintuitive, as women with back pain might report back pain when wearing or carrying certain items. However, to assume that the back pain was caused by these is definitely putting the cart before the horse. In research studies, where large groups of people including women are followed up over several years to see who does, and does not, develop back pain, clothing, bags or shoes have never shown a link to back pain or found to be a cause of back pain.
What IS probably more relevant is whether a woman thinks that they are wearing something that is damaging their back. The beliefs about the skinny jeans, bags and coats may not only be incorrect, but detrimental if they cause worry about the spine being fragile and discourage women from moving normally and wearing what they want. Misconceptions regarding the causes and treatments of low back pain are widespread. This story about skinny jeans, parka coats and bags is just another myth in the long list of myths about back pain.
It fits with the misconception that load is bad for the back and that the spine is a vulnerable structure that is easily damaged. Strong evidence shows that this is not true. The back isn’t like a piece of glass, it is a strong structure well designed for movement and load. In fact, it seems the trends towards minding the back and actually wrapping it in cotton wool so to speak are actually making matters worse. This skinny jeans story fuels this unnecessary fear around the back.
If women want to reduce their back pain or prevent future episodes, they need to look beyond their clothes and fashion items. Scientific studies are now showing that a wide range of factors contribute to back pain. These include physical (minding/guarding the back, avoiding movements), psychological (fear of damage/pain or not getting better, low mood/depression, stress), health (being tired and run down, low energy), lifestyle (sleep problems, low levels of physical activity, being overweight), and social (poor relationships at work or home, work satisfaction, stressful life events like a death or illness) factors. Engaging in exercise and being reassured and educated about back pain are the two best methods to prevent future back pain.
Overall, women should continue to wear their skinny jeans, bags, heels and other clothing and fashion items with confidence and be reassured that these items do not cause back pain; being fashionable might be a pain for your pocket but certainly not for your back!