Choose the Right Backpack to Avoid Injury

Pack it Light, Wear it Right

Dr. Greg Johnston B.H.K., B.Ed., D.C.

It’s back to school time yet again.  This is the perfect time to review how to choose and how to wear the proper backpack to minimize the change of spinal injury.

Backpacks have become the most common school accessory to help in the transportation of the plethora of supplies and personal belongings that our children lug back and forth to school each and every day.  Backpacks are the most efficient way to transport heavy materials over moderate distances while maintaining the safety of the spine which is why students should be encouraged to carry their gear in a backpack.  If however, they don’t have an appropriately fitted and loaded backpack, these all important accessories can lead to back and neck pain.  In fact, wearing a poorly designed or overloaded backpack may have serious and long lasting consequences for a growing and developing spine.

A heavy backpack carried on one shoulder forces the muscles and the spine to compensate for the uneven weight.  This will place stress on the mid and lower back creating pain in the short term and perhaps increasing the likelihood of back problems later in life.  More than 50 percent of young people experience at least one episode of lower back pain by their teenage years.  Research indicates that this could be the result, to a great extent, of improper use of backpacks.

A 2002 study at Queen’s university found that choosing the right backpack and taking care to distribute the weight evenly can make a big difference in avoiding injuries and being pain free. Here are a few pointers to help your school are children choose an appropriate backpack and load it properly.

Choosing the Right Backpack

  • Choose a backpack that is proportionate to body size and not larger than what is needed.  The top of the backpack should not extend higher than the top of the shoulder and the bottom half should not fall below the top of the hipbone.
  • Select a backpack made of lightweight material ( vinyl or canvas instead of leather)
  • The shoulder straps should be at least two inches wide, adjustable and padded.  Ensure that they do not cut into or fit too snugly around the arms and arm pits.  Poorly designed shoulder straps can dig into the muscles and compress nerves.
  • Look for a padded back for added protection and comfort.
  • A hip strap or waist belt helps to effectively redistribute as much as 50 to 70 percent of the weight off the shoulders and spine into the pelvis, equalizing the strain on the skeleton and muscles.
  • Choose a backpack that has several individual pockets instead of one large compartment.  This will help to distribute the weight evenly and keep the contents from shifting.

Packing a Backpack Properly

  • Backpacks should never exceed 15 percent of a student’s body weight.  For elementary school students that maximum should not exceed 10 percent.
  • Ensure that the weight is evenly distributed in the backpack
  • Pack the heaviest items closest to the body, the reduces the strain the load may create
  • Only carry the essential items.

Putting On and Lifting the Backpack

It is a good idea to help young children with this to the first few times.  Put the pack on a flat surface at waist height.  Slip the pack on one shoulder at a time.  Adjust the straps to fit comfortably.  Remember to lift with the legs.  If your child does complain of back pain, neck pain or headaches seek the advice of a qualified health professional.  A chiropractor would be a great place to start.  The above recommendations are great tips for adults as well.  Whether you are off on a backpacking adventure or just heading to the gym, remember to pack it light and wear it right.

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