Backpacks: Chronic Pain Waiting to Happen

As a physical therapist, my job isn't just to treat my patient’s injuries. I've also got to advise them on how to avoid similar injuries in the future. A good physical therapist doesn’t just heal – they prevent. So when I see kids walking around my neighborhood with these great, heavy backpacks that look like they’re filled with rocks, I can’t help but see a chronic back problem waiting to happen.

Posted on | Luke Bongiorno, PT | Comments ()

As a physical therapist, my job isn't just to treat my patient’s injuries. I've also got to advise them on how to avoid similar injuries in the future. A good physical therapist doesn’t just heal – they prevent. So when I see kids walking around my neighborhood with these great, heavy backpacks that look like they’re filled with rocks, I can’t help but see a chronic back problem waiting to happen.

Backpack misuse is nothing new. I actually remember slinging mine around on one shoulder. But kids today carry more, and new research is revealing this to be a more serious issue than anyone imagined.

I know that backpacks big enough to stuff your child’s whole room into are popular, but they’ll regret it in a few years. Improper use of backpacks can lead to lower back pain, poor posture, spinal distortion, knee problems and even poor breathing patterns. Thousands of children are treated every year by physicians and physical therapists for such injuries, and an increasing number of kids in their late teens are presenting with posture and muscle issues thanks to years of incorrect backpack usage.

Here are some guidelines you can use to make sure your child is using theirs correctly:

  • A backpack's weight should not be more than 10-15 percent of your child’s own body weight.
  • The contents should be organized so that your child doesn’t have any odd lumps or protrusions pressing into his or her back.
  • Heavy items should be placed closer to the spine to reduce the leverage and effective weight.
  • Packs should not be dropped below the waist.
  • Waist straps should be worn, and the shoulder straps should be adjusted for the best fit.
  • Good posture should be promoted at all times, whether your child is wearing a backpack or not. This means learning to walk with the head up, the stomach in, and the back as straight as is comfortable.

It’s not just parents who can help their children practice good backpack skills, either. Teachers can help prevent back problems by encouraging students to store their bags in their lockers, petitioning libraries to make mandatory textbooks available, and taking a few minutes out from the day's lessons to show students how to wear their backpacks properly.

If you want to make sure your child stays free from back pain in the future, make sure you buy them backpacks that are appropriate for their body size, and talk to them about good backpack posture today. They might not like having to wear theirs properly, but they’ll thank you later when they can stand up straight and bend over without groaning.

Blog written by Luke Bongiorno, PT
Luke Bongiorno is one of New York’s highest regarded physical therapists. He is an owner and the managing director at NY Sports...