I have kept my wallet in my back pocket for as long as I can remember. However, after an excruciating bout of back pain, I started reevaluating my habits. Among other things, I switched to using a standing desk while I was at work, and I now regularly perform some simple back exercises each evening. Things have improved for me, but I wondered whether I should also start keeping my wallet somewhere else. It seemed obvious to me that it probably didn’t help to keep my wallet in my back pocket, but I wasn’t sure whether it actively made things worse.
If I’m being honest, I really didn’t want to change my habit; I’m so used to keeping my wallet in my back pocket that it would seem unnatural to put it somewhere else. However, I didn’t want to risk undermining all of the other steps I’ve taken to avoid another episode of excruciating back pain. I was thus curious, and I wanted to see what experts had to say. I’ve spent quite a bit of time researching the issue, and I thought I would share what I’ve learned.
So, if you are wondering whether keeping your wallet in your back pocket contributes to or causes back pain, you’ve come to the right spot!
A Brief Overview of Back Pain
The vast majority of us suffer from back pain, at least occasionally. Indeed, the Mayo Clinic reports that 80% of people will experience it at some point in their lives. In most cases, the pain is felt in the lower back, and it is an acute rather than a chronic problem. The lower back is where our first five vertebrae are located. These are the largest of the vertebrae, and they bear most of the weight of our upper body.
There are several potential causes of lower back pain. Sometimes, the pain has a congenital source, meaning that it results from conditions that have been present since birth. Other times, it is caused by other underlying medical conditions, such as kidney stones, tumors, certain kinds of infections, etc. External factors are also a common cause of pain. Examples include any back pain that stems from a physical accident or bodily injury.
Our question is of this last type. Can my back pocket wallet cause an injury to my back and, if so, how?
What the Science Suggests
I was surprised to learn that scientists have known for decades that sitting on a thick wallet can cause back pain. In 1978, Dr. Elmar Lutz coined a term for the condition; he called it “Credit-Card-Wallet Sciatica.” More recently, physicians have come to refer to it as “Fat Wallet Syndrome.”
Sciatica refers to pain that results from pressure being applied to the sciatic nerve, which is a long bundle of nerve fibers that stretches from the base of the spine to the foot. Researchers explain that fat wallet syndrome manifests as “pain, tingling, and [a] burning sensation” in the lower back. Other researchers have specified that it is caused by sitting on a wallet that is 22mm (0.87 inches) or greater in thickness.
When I first read the scientific research concerning fat wallet syndrome, I thought, “Well, my wallet isn’t that thick.” I have certainly seen people with much thicker wallets than mine! However, I wanted to make sure that my impression was correct. Unfortunately, when I measured it, I discovered that my wallet was ⅞ inches (or just over 22mm) thick—precisely the size that scientists have determined is prone to cause back pain.
One thing to notice is that a wallet can only cause or contribute to sciatica when you sit on it, and particularly when you sit on it for fifteen minutes or longer. Keeping your wallet in your back pocket when you are standing or walking around won’t result in lower back pain.
Gender and Cultural Factors
Interestingly, it is usually only men who end up having sciatica due to having an extra-large wallet. In many Western cultures, men do not tend to carry handbags, whereas women do; they often place their belongings in a purse or clutch. For better or for worse, there is a social stigma in many cultures against men using any kind of bag that resembles a purse, and it is often impractical to use a larger bag, such as a backpack or rucksack.
What should you do to prevent “Fat Wallet Syndrome”?
The pain associated with fat wallet syndrome can vary from mild to excruciating. While it might initially manifest as an acute episode if you don’t change your habits, it can lead to a chronic condition. If you are concerned that you are experiencing, or might experience, sciatica as a result of sitting on your wallet, there are some simple steps you can take.
First and most obviously, you should engage in preventive measures. This is as simple as removing your wallet from your pocket before sitting down for any length of time. For example, when getting into your vehicle, you can place the wallet in your console or glove box, and when you are working, you can put it on your desk, in a drawer or locker, or so on.
Of course, you will want to ensure you don’t forget to grab it when you exit the vehicle or head home from work. I, myself, have done so, and it can be frustrating! On more than one occasion, I’ve been standing in the check-out line at the store, getting ready to pay, when I realize that I left my wallet in the car. An obvious way to avoid forgetting it would be to place it in the front pocket of your pants, in a jacket pocket, or so on.
As alluded to above, it isn’t necessary to refrain from placing your wallet in your back pocket all the time; when you are walking around, it isn’t an issue.
Another preventive measure is to avoid keeping unnecessary items in your wallet. Many of us place photos, receipts, and business cards in our wallets, but doing so clearly makes the wallet thicker. If you keep only a small selection of bills and a couple of credit or debit cards in the wallet, it will probably not be thick enough to cause a problem.
Address Existing Issues
The second step is to alleviate any existing pain you are already feeling. If you are experiencing back pain, the Mayo Clinic recommends engaging in healthy physical activity, implementing an exercise regimen that will strengthen the muscles in your lower back, and taking steps to ensure that you have and maintain good posture. If practical, you should consider using a standing desk or adjusting your workspace to prevent prolonged sitting and crouching.
One thing that I initially found counterintuitive was that the Mayo Clinic advises against bed rest. When my back is sore, I want to lay down! However, as they point out, this doesn’t exercise the back muscles, and prolonged rest can result in your muscles becoming weaker.
Seek Medical Attention if the Pain is Severe
If your back problem worsens or does not improve after a few days, or if it is excruciatingly painful, you should seek medical attention. You should also visit a physician if your back pain is accompanied by other symptoms, suggesting a more severe condition. Examples include persistent numbness in your extremities, weakness in your legs, and abdominal or digestive pain.
The short answer to whether keeping your wallet in your back pocket can cause back pain is, “Yes.” While it does not necessarily do so for everyone, those with particularly thick wallets are susceptible to developing sciatica. Whether this pain is only mildly irritating or excruciating depends on several additional factors, including how much exercise you get, your posture, and so on.
It is essential to recognize that sciatica and other forms of back pain can arise from various causes. While refraining from sitting on your wallet is an important preventative measure, it might not address the causes of your discomfort. If you remain in pain even after changing your habits, it is worth consulting with your doctor.