Backpacks Can REALLY Be a Pain in the Neck

By Kateri Kane, PT, DPT

Most kids just want to fit in with the crowd and keep up with whatever is in style. Middle school and high school can especially be tough both socially and academically. So much is expected from both peers and adults. So what does this have to do with backpacks? Well, believe it or not, I was a student once. Every day I witnessed how kids were wearing their backpacks. Typically, they were slung on one shoulder with loose straps and a ridiculous amount of books in them. If I wanted to fit in, I knew that I had to do the same. Had I known then what I know now, I never would have worn my bag the way I did.

What are the risks of improperly wearing a backpack? Neck, back, and shoulder pain can all result from excessive backpack weight as well as carrying the bag on one shoulder or with the straps too loose. 

No, structural scoliosis does not occur from wearing your backpack on one shoulder, but functional scoliosis is a possibility. Functional scoliosis is not a permanent change in the joint structures; instead, it is caused by muscle shortening due to prolonged time periods in an abnormal position (being side bent in this case). Even though structural scoliosis may not be caused by backpacks, if your child has already been diagnosed with structural scoliosis, it can be aggravated by a heavy backpack that is held incorrectly.

The long term effects of carrying a backpack improperly may include: excessive compression on the spine resulting in dysfunction at the joints, hip and knee pain from the impact of walking while carrying an increased weight, and the formation of poor postural habits. Postural habits can be especially difficult to break and will worsen back problems as children grow older.

What is the proper way to wear a backpack? According to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) and the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS), backpacks should be worn as follows:

  • Always use both shoulder straps
  • Tighten the straps so that the bag rests over the strongest mid-back muscles
  • Pack lightly(no greater than 15% of body weight)
  • Organize your backpack(heaviest items closest to your body)
  • Remove unnecessary items
  • Lift your bag properly (use your legs, not your back)
  • Build muscle strength

As a parent, you may have to take action. Back in high school, I didn’t have time to go to my locker and switch books between certain classes. I ended up carrying almost all of my books with me, which was a huge strain on my neck and back. If your child ends up in a similar situation, you may have to talk to the school about lightening the load, increasing the opportunity for students to stop at their lockers, or even having a set of classroom books so that the students don’t have to carry as much. The APTA created a video which is a good summary of everything listed here.

Share this material with your kids.  Keep them informed so that they can be the ones to set a trend that will help their bodies in the future, annot harm them. HAPPY BACKPACK AWARENESS DAY! Feel free to leave any comments or suggestions. Our next entry will discuss your ability to have direct access to physical therapy.Thank you and stay active.


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