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Painful Fashion: When Trendy = Torture

High heels, huge handbags, tight jeans, and decorative contacts may be in style, but they also can take a toll on your body.

WebMD Feature

High heels have made Susan Juarez's feet ache to their soles, and she even sprained her ankle once while dancing in stiletto boots. But soaring, slimming heels remain the 24-year-old Californian's favorite fashion vice. "I like that they make me taller, and they just look a lot sleeker," she says.

Like Juarez, legions of women have suffered in the name of painful fashion. How many of us have endured strappy sandals that cut into our feet, oversize designer bags that hurt our shoulders, too-tight jeans, and corsets that nip 3 inches off our waists but leave us breathless?

Sometimes, the cure is simple. Replace the enormous tote with a small handbag and the shoulder pain vanishes.

But in more dire cases, the beauty trap turns into true torture. A decade of stiletto heels can create painful foot deformities, and as little as one night of improperly worn fashion contact lenses can trigger a serious eye infection.

Of course, it's only natural to want to look smashing, so don't worry: You need not resign yourself to a wardrobe of ballet flats or shapeless outfits. With an ounce of common sense, experts tell WebMD, you can still turn heads -- and not by crashing down a staircase in your 6-inch platforms.

Painful Fashion Choice No. 1: Heavy Purses

That huge designer handbag sounds like a good idea, right? It's elegant and in vogue, and you never have to leave behind your bottled water, sandwich, snacks, makeup bag, hairbrush, hair gel, Band-Aids, aspirin, and copy of War and Peace.

But after a few hours, you have nightmarish flashbacks to the time you lugged that overstuffed carryon from one end of O'Hare Airport to the other.

Whenever patients complain of shoulder or arm pain, Leon Benson, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon at Evanston Northwestern Healthcare in Illinois, always glances at what they carry into the exam room. If it's a huge purse, he wonders, "What have you got in there -- bricks?"

Actually, the size of the bag isn't the problem, but the weight, says Benson, who is also a spokesman for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. A big bag can be packed lightly, but its spaciousness tempts many women to load it up.

How much is too much? "I would propose that anything that causes pain is too heavy," Benson says.

Carrying a heavy purse won't cause permanent skeletal deformity, he says. "It just hurts a lot" because the shoulder muscles bear constant stress.

Some tips for preventing pain:

  • If you carry a heavy purse, alternate it between both shoulders.
  • Switch your handbags so that you're not carrying a big purse every day. Or bring your big tote to the office, then remove essential items, such as a wallet and keys, and carry them within a smaller purse.
  • If you buy a big purse, choose one with wider straps, which helps distribute weight over a broader area of your shoulder, Benson suggests. For fashion-conscious women who prefer skinny straps, the thicker straps "may not be the best look," he concedes, but it could be a shoulder-saver.
  • Buy a backpack-style purse to better distribute the weight, suggests Carol Frey, MD, a Southern California orthopaedic surgeon. "If you have to carry a lot of stuff, I would invest in a very fashionable backpack."

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