As one of the leading pain-related conditions in the U.S., the American Association of Neurological Surgeons estimates that 75 to 85% of people will experience some form of back pain during their life. While age and age-related health conditions are often the culprits in developed adults, children and teens are no exception to experiencing chronic back pain, often due to their backpack.
A study by the medical journal “Spine” confirms that heavy backpacks can cause compression of discs in the lower back as well as cause deterioration in the lumbar region, resulting in back pain.
Yet starting at a young age, kids are forced to carry backpacks to school overflowing with binders and heavy textbooks.
Dr. Erica Goldman, a pediatrician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, recommends that packs don’t exceed 10% of a person’s body weight; however, Spine’s study shows most kids carry backpacks that weigh 15% to 20% of their body mass.
“Smaller individuals should carry lighter packs, and larger individuals can carry heavier packs,” Goldman said. “Unfortunately, textbooks are all the same size, so backpacks end up being the same (weight) for individuals with very different capabilities.”
Sophomore Kamila Wong said she has been dealing with lower back pain inflicted by her heavy backpack for years.
“On days where I have to carry a lot of stuff, my backpack can weigh 20 pounds,” Wong said.
During school, Wong said she has gotten used to the constant throbbing while wearing her backpack.
“When I get home at the end of the day and put my backpack down, it’s just like, ‘Ouch,’” Wong said.
Goldman said that part of the reason backpacks are so damaging to the back is because the wearer uses them incorrectly. She said it is common for kids to sling their backpack across one shoulder, which creates an imbalance of weight and strains the back muscles, and that both straps should be worn at all times.
She also said students should use their backpack’s waist belt to further balance out the weight and put less pressure on their backs.
“If you like backpacking, where you are using truly heavy packs, you know that you have to put the weight on your hips and not on your shoulders,” Goldman said.
Wong said her back pain lessened tremendously after purchasing a supportive and properly fitted backpack.
“My old backpack used to sag a lot because all of the weight went to one central area,” Wong said. “I think picking the right backpack for (your body) is really important.”
Physical education and Yoga teacher Sheri Mulroe said she has become more aware of how detrimental backpacks can be to a person’s spine after she suffered a back injury three years ago.
“When I see a teenager hunched over with a heavy backpack on, I can only imagine what’s going to happen to their neck and their back in the future,” she said.
Mulroe said a way to alleviate the stress on a back is to spread out the weight inside the backpack.
“If the stuff inside is distributed throughout, instead of the weight being only on one side, that will go a long way,” Mulroe said.
Mulroe also teaches her students that a strong core is crucial to keeping a healthy spine.
“If you strengthen your core and keep your shoulders back and down, it can help keep your spine aligned which can reduce the likelihood of a back injury,” Mulroe said.
Goldman agrees. She said kids who aren’t frequently working their core may slouch more, increasing their chances of experiencing back pain.
“Kids who don’t have a lot of core muscle development are much more likely to have bad posture,” Goldman said.
Another solution is the rolling backpack –– a bag similar to a suitcase in that it rolls on wheels instead of having straps to carry on the back. Senior Kayla Brand said her rolling backpack changed the game for her. She said she will never go back to a traditional backpack with shoulder straps again.
“It just feels a lot better and gives me more freedom when I walk around,” Brand said.
Brand’s rolling backpack is also larger than a standard backpack, allowing for the convenience of space without the concern of back pain.
“It’s like a movable locker because I can carry a lot more without a weight on my back,” Brand said.
She said after her transition from a standard to a rolling backpack during her freshman year, she noticed a huge difference in how her back felt on a daily basis.
For most students, back pain is an annoyance, but Mulroe said maintaining good posture and using backpacks properly are habits that will be a blessing to the spine in the future.
“The good and bad habits we engrain in our body, brain and muscles are what our body’s default is,” Mulroe said. “We have to make those good choices early in our lives before it’s too late.”