Prevent Backpack Back Pain This School Year

While carrying a backpack makes lugging gear easier, a poorly designed pack (or an improperly worn one) can strain your child’s back. Over time, wearing a backpack incorrectly can lead to scoliosis (curved spine), tension headaches and back pain, says Lanny Orr, D.C., a chiropractor with Henry Ford Center for Integrative Medicine.

But kids’ backpacks aren’t the only offenders. Adults haul excessive junk around, too, in briefcases, pocketbooks, etc. The possibilities — and pain — are endless. The extra weight can mess with posture and stress the lower back, upper back and neck. The end result: a nation of people suffering needlessly from back pain.

To help lighten the load, here are seven strategies to carry the bare necessities with relative ease:

  1. Lighten up. The best thing you can do for your back: become a minimalist. “Ideally, you shouldn’t carry more than 10 percent of your body weight,” says Orr. “That’s about the maximum weight your frame can hold without pushing your body out of alignment.” So, put the bag on a scale to see how it measures up. If it’s too heavy, drop some weight by emptying the bag and ditching nonessentials.
  2. Strive for symmetry. Carrying a shoulder bag — or wearing a backpack with only one strap — throws off your posture. This asymmetric load causes muscles in your spine to curve under the pressure of the added weight. The end result? Lower back pain. Instead, wear a backpack that evenly distributes the weight, or opt for a messenger bag that fits diagonally across your body.
  3. Switch it up. If you must carry a single-strap bag or sport a backpack on only one shoulder, periodically switch sides. Even a hand-held purse can be problematic if you don’t regularly move it from your right hand to your left.
  4. Focus on straps. Select a backpack with wide, padded straps to help bear the brunt of the weight. (Narrow straps concentrate force and could dig into your shoulder or back.) “The best backpacks have hip and chest belts to transfer the weight, so it’s not all on the shoulders,” says Orr. Then, adjust the straps so they’re snug and the backpack fits right against the back. If kids don’t wear the backpack properly or if it hangs too low, it can hyperextend the back or force the child to lean forward, leading to muscle strain.
  5. Aim high. Lifting a heavy pack can cause injury, especially if you’re moving from the floor to your shoulders. Instead, leave packs on counters, tabletops or desks, so kids can slip them on while standing. If you must bend over to put on the pack, bend at the knees, not the waist, engage your abdominal muscles and use the strength of your legs to complete the lift. And never, ever swing a pack over your shoulder.
  6. Keep it close. Carrying your load closer to the body reduces the amount of sway and stress placed on the spinal muscles. “You want to minimize twisting and rotating, which can create muscle tightness,” says Orr.
  7. Strengthen your core. To reduce back strain, engage your abdominal muscles (like when you’re zipping up a tight pair of pants). Then center your weight over your feet with your shoulder blades pulled down and back. “Keeping the core strong, especially as we get older, helps reduce pressure on the lower back,” says Orr.

If your child is already experiencing back pain or neck and shoulder strain, seeing a chiropractor might help. “If we can get that spine in check when they’re young, they’re less likely to have back issues when they get older,” says Orr.