Back pain is one of the most common pain-related conditions in the U.S. with 28.4 percent of adults claiming to experience back pain in 2016. While there are many reasons why people develop back pain, a simple everyday object may be the source of back pain developing in both adults and children alike: the backpack.
Overall, we carry around a lot of baggage. Yes, emotional baggage, but also physically heavy baggage. It is easily to fill backpacks for school and work to the brim with lunches, notebooks, laptops, folders, binders, large water bottles and other miscellaneous items.
Carrying around these heavy loads on a daily basis, from childhood into adulthood, wreak havoc on the back and the lower back. Heavy backpacks cause us to have poor posture, lean to one side more than the other, and put strain on the neck, shoulders, spine and back muscles.
Risk of Heavy Backpacks in Childhood
Carrying around a heavy backpack on a daily basis in childhood affects the spine and the back more than you may think. Studies confirm that children tend to carry between 30 percent and 40 percent of their weight in their backpacks. Most studies recommend that children should only carry an average of 10 percent to 15 percent of their body weight on their back at all times.
Since school children are carrying significantly more than they should be to and from school, back problems are on the rise in young children, which can carry on into their adult lives. It is confirmed that heavy backpack loads can cause compression of discs in a child’s lower back, which leads to back pain and discomfort in the present and the future.
Another study found that the weight of heavy backpacks can cause deterioration in the lumbar region of the spine, which can lead to back problems and poor posture later in life.
Kids also alter their posture when they are carrying around a heavy load, which can lead to even more discomfort in their lower backs. Overall, it is concluded that children should not carry more than 10 percent of their body weight in backpacks to avoid posture and spine issue. However, this is often not the case and most children continue to carry much more than the recommended amount of weight.
In an effort to combat this all too common problem, parents must make the conscious effort to ensure their child’s backpack is not too heavy for their body weight.
One tip to reduce the weight in a backpack is to send them to school with an empty water bottle they fill at school instead of at home before the leave for the day.
Heavy Backpacks in Adulthood
Children are not the only one’s subject to back pain from heavy backpacks. Young adults in college carry around extremely heavy backpacks on a daily basis, often for a longer time than younger children do.
Walking large campuses, going to class, heading to the library, etc. means that college students are carrying around a backpack for most of the day. Furthermore, many adults will carry a backpack to and from work on a daily basis filled with heavy items. People who live in the city and walk to and from work likely carry a backpack with them to transport all necessary items to and from the office.
Signs Your Backpack is Too Heavy
If you think your backpack is too heavy, it most likely is. These are some common signs that suggest the backpack you are carrying is too heavy:
- Hard to put on and take off
- You feel strain in your neck and shoulders
- The straps leave marks on your neck and shoulders
- You have tingling or numbness
- Your posture changes – you lean more forward, backward, or to one side, etc.
You may also notice if you walk past a mirror or a reflective window that you are hunching your shoulders and they appear to round from a side view. This suggests that your backpack is causing improper posture which generally leads to neck pain, back pain, shoulder pain and lower back pain.
Effects of Heavy Backpacks in Adulthood
Adults are more likely to have back pain and problems to begin with due to increasing age. Therefore, carrying heavy loads only make the problem much worse and more painful. Carrying a heavy load on your back can damage the soft tissues in your shoulders that can cause damage to your nerves.
One study found that the damage to nerves from carrying a backpack can range from mild to severe. On one end, you may experience minor irritation to the nerves and nerve capacity, but on the other hand, you could also experience a limited ability for the muscles to respond to brain signals. This can lead to impaired hand and finger movements.
The study also found that that carrying around heavy items in a backpack can be transferred to under the skin and can cause damage to internal organs and tissue. Using a computer model, the study was able to demonstrate how the load and the pressure from the load penetrates the skin and transfers to the brachial plexus nerves.
Therefore, “extensive mechanical loading was seen to have a high physiological impact. ’The backpack load applies tension to these nerves,’ ” explains Prof. Amit Gefen. He notes that the resulting damage ” ‘leads to a reduction in the conduction velocity — that is, the speed by which electrical signals are transferred through the nerves.’ With a delay or reduction in the amplitude or the intensity of signals, nerve communication cannot properly function.”
Another study also found that walking with a heavy backpack makes your risk for back pain increase even more. A heavy backpack can cause damage to the muscles, joints and ligaments in your back and your hips.
When you are walking with more weight on your back, it forces your body to compensate for the additional weight in some way. This compensation in certain areas of the body, like the back and hips, cannot go on forever in an effective way, and those parts of your body begin to decline.
This decline can lead to issues such as:
- Decreased range of motion
- Muscle strain
- Even headaches
How to Decrease the Risks of Heavy Backpacks and Back Pain
Not all is lost if you carried a heavy backpack as a child, young adult, or even well into adulthood. While there are some things you may not be able to fully fix, the good news is you can always do things in the present to prevent further damage and more back pain.
- Always pay close attention to your posture when carrying a backpack. Make sure your back is straight, do not hunch your shoulders or round them, and keep your head and neck in line with your spine. Also keeping your shoulders down and away from your ears will prevent neck and shoulder pain, which can also lead to headaches.
- Wear your backpack close to your body and do not let it sag down towards your butt. Keeping the weight closer to your body allows for a more even distribution and takes pressure off of your spine and back.
- Put heavy items in the center of your backpack. Again, this will help distribute weight more evenly and reduce pressure.
- Only pack what you really need. Try to take out items that are unnecessary or you barely use on a regular basis. The lighter your backpack is the better your back is going to feel and the less back pain you will experience.
Making sure you have a strong back, strong shoulders and core will also help prevent back pain and injuries from carrying a heavy backpack most days of the week. A strong core will automatically make your posture better, and it will be easier for you to stand and walk tall and with proper posture when you are carrying around a heavier load. A strong back will also help with posture and make it easier to carry around weight.
How to get rid of back pain and reduce back pain caused by backpacks is challenging, but it is certainly not impossible. Making a few tweaks to the way you carry a backpack and how heavy your backpack is will go a long way for reducing your back pain if it is caused by a heavy load.
Dr. Brent Wells is the author of over 700+ online articles that have been featured on sites such as Dr. Axe and Lifehack. These articles include various types of information about how you can live a healthy and happy life. He founded Better Health Chiropractic & Physical Rehab in Anchorage in Alaska in 1998. Dr. Wells has been a chiropractor for over 20 years and has treated thousands of patients who suffer from varying problems. When he’s not working, Dr. Wells can be found coaching kids’ soccer, practicing yoga and doing weight training.