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The Alleged ‘Fat Wallet Syndrome’

In a recent Reddit thread, I read a comment about an idea that wallets are bad for your back. As it goes, the idea levels at least some of the blame for the abundance of lower back pain in the world today on people sitting on wallets shoved down their back pockets for long hours every day.

A quick series of searches through your browser-of-choice appears to confirm the notion. A wave of bite-sized information profiles on ‘Fat Wallet Syndrome’ or ‘Wallet Sciatica’ feature on the webpages for American orthopedics practices and health help sites.

The Science Side

Most reports of back troubles caused, or at least aggregated, by wallets cite Piriformis Syndrome (or Piriformis Muscle Syndrome) as the underlying medical explanation. The condition is said to be caused by pinching of the sciatic nerve which then triggers pain through the hip and upper leg. For most, the condition is preexisting and adding that constant pressure from a wallet aggravates any painful sensations.


Anatomical location of piriformis syndrome and caused by an anomalous interaction between the sciatic nerve and the piriformis muscle. Image Attribution: users Patrick J. Lynch & KDS4444

And yet, even the opening line of the piriformis syndrome Wikipedia page refers to the condition as “controversial”. For an issue that would appear to affect the well-being of so many, it barely raises a single mention in the pages and pages of scientific research into back pain. On top of that, the singling out of wallets as a cause of piriformis syndrome is an even rarer occurrence.

So, as for the legitimacy of wallets giving you back problems, the jury is well and truly out. But, while its harmful effects aren’t even close to being established, it’s always safer to err on the side of caution – wedging a thick object under one side of your spine for hours at a time can’t exactly be doing wonders for your back.

A Fix

As far as treatments go, the best option is of course consulting someone with some real expertise in the field. In the meantime, it would be hard to go wrong by cutting down on those loyalty cards or simply removing your wallet to sit down. Or perhaps its better to follow in the footsteps of Pennsylvanian orthopedic surgeon David Cooper. In a 1978 letter responding to a case reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, he wrote the following.



Image Attribution: JAMA