Choosing the proper backpack

By Colleen Sleik,

PT, DPT, OCS

A backpack is a better way to carry life’s necessities than a briefcase or a shoulder bag, especially for longer periods of time.

A backpack that is too-heavy or improperly worn may harm joints and muscles, especially of young children according to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA).

Properly worn, a backpack is supported by the strongest muscles of the body: the back and abdominal muscles. In time for the start of the school season, physical therapists are offering some advice on how to properly wear a backpack and avoid injuries.

Here are some rules to follow:

– Wear both straps. Slinging a backpack over one shoulder causes a person to lean to one side to compensate for the uneven weight, curving the spine. Over time, this can cause lower and upper back pain, strained shoulders and neck, and even functional scoliosis or a curvature of the spine. Teenage girls are especially susceptible to scoliosis.

– Make sure the backpack is not too heavy. Students of all ages seem to carry heavier loads, often toting a full day’s worth of textbooks and a change of clothing for after-school athletics or extra-curricular activities.

Even when worn properly with both straps, leaning forward to compensate for this extra weight can affect the natural curve in the lumbar spine or lower back region. Extra weight may cause a rounding of the shoulders and increased curve in the thoracic spine or upper back region. As a result, the student may experience back, shoulder and/or neck pain. A good rule of thumb is to carry no more than 15-20 percent of one’s body weight.

– Pay attention to the type of backpack. Look for backpacks with wide straps to avoid impingement on the nerves that are close to the surface in the shoulder region.

Narrow straps may affect circulation causing numbness or tingling in the arms, which over time may cause weakness in the hands.

Look for a backpack with a waist belt to help distribute the weight of the backpack more evenly. Also, consider the weight of the backpack when empty.