Is Your Backpack a Pain in the Back?
Dr. Christine White
With everything that students need to bring to school with them these days – textbooks, laptops, sports gear, musical instruments, lunch, and more – backpacks are the bag of choice from kindergarten to grad school and beyond. Many commuters who cycle, walk, or take transit to work opt for backpacks as a convenient, hands-free way of carrying their daily necessities. While wearing a backpack seems relatively straight-forward, packs that are used incorrectly, especially on a daily basis over a long period of time, can leave you at risk for back pain and injury.
Backpacks that are poorly designed, too heavy, or not worn properly can increase stress on the musculoskeletal system. As your body tries to adapt to an unbalanced or excessive load you may bend forwards, round your shoulders, or change your head and neck position. These compensations can overload muscles and joints in the back, neck, and shoulders, contributing to pain and chronic postural changes. Headaches, numbness or tingling in the arms, changes in gait, and muscle soreness and fatigue can all result from incorrect backpack use.
While backpack-related injuries can occur at any age, children and adolescents may be particularly sensitive as their musculoskeletal systems are still developing. Recent studies found that up to 50-75% of school-aged children report having experienced at least one episode of back pain, and that risk was associated with both using a backpack and heavier backpacks. As well, back pain in childhood is known to increase the likelihood of having back pain as an adult. Since most children will use backpacks throughout their school years, teaching them how to wear and use their packs properly is very important.
Education on back health and safety can help prevent injuries and long term problems in people of all ages. The following guidelines are geared towards parents of school-aged children, but this information is applicable to anyone who uses backpacks, large purses or shoulder bags for school, work or travel.
- Bigger is not necessarily better. The more room there is in a backpack, the more your child will carry and the heavier the backpack will be.
- Elementary school students should not carry more than 10% of their body weight. Secondary school students should avoid carrying weight exceeding 15% of their body weight.
- Backpacks should be made of the light materials. Vinyl and canvas are much better than leather.
- Packs with multiple pockets and compartments can keep heavy items from moving around and distribute weight more evenly than single compartment bags.
- Backpacks with two straps distribute weight better than book-bags that are slung over the shoulder or across the body. Function should take precedence over fashion.
- The top of the backpack should not extend higher than the top of the shoulder and the bottom should not fall below the top of the hipbone.
- The shoulder straps should be at least 2 inches wide and should not fit too snugly around the arms, straining muscles and affecting nerves.
- A hip strap or waist belt can take as much as 50-70% of the weight off the shoulders and spine. The waist belt will equalize the strain on the bones, joints and muscles.
- Students should pack the heaviest items closest to the body so that the weight is nearest the body’s own centre of gravity.
- A backpack that is too heavy or rides too low causes one to lean forward and put extra strain on the back.
- Both straps are critical to avoiding injury, as slinging the pack on one side causes the spine to lean, increasing the likelihood of middle and lower back problems that can worsen later in life.
- The best way to put on a pack is to place it on a desk or table at waist height and then slip it on. Avoid twisting!
If you would like more information, please speak to your practitioner at evolve Nurturing Vitality.