Updated: Mar 29
Whether you are traveling, heading to work, or going to school, carrying a heavy bag can be taxing on your body. How one prepares for this type of load and the work involved in getting to and from your destination will dictate how good you feel throughout the day.
According to recent statistics, there are tens of thousands of children who visit the ER every year in the United States and about 86% of all children experience back pain related to wearing a backpack. These numbers are very troubling considering a significant amount of the school-age population are experiencing pain in a spine that is still developing. Without the appropriate ability to carry or wear their backpack, this could impact their growth regarding adolescence scoliosis development and create recidivism (chronic nature) of back pain as they continue to grow and age.
In today's blog post, we will discuss not only the reasons for back pain related to wearing a backpack but what adjustments you should implement (both for yourself and your child) to mitigate issues associated with carrying all heavy bags (e.g., backpacks, suitcases, briefcases, and purses).
How NOT to Wear a Backpack?
The major issue with wearing a backpack stems from two factors: the bag itself just being too heavy compared to your body weight and how you are wearing/carrying it.
As years pass, the work does not seem to get any less and the textbooks and supplies needed to be in the classroom appear to continue to pile up. Of course, you or your child don’t have the appropriate time to come back and forth to their lockers or the opportunity to leave their things in school, so they need to carry everything with them. But how much is too much? What is NOT okay when it comes to carrying a bag or backpack? Let’s find out!
Having the appropriate fit and distribution of weight within your bag across your body is vital. Therefore, if your bag is busting at the seams, the weight is causing you to feel like you are falling backward or you have to lean forward to remain upright, and/or you are hiking your shoulders to give yourself the appropriate support, your bag may be too heavy. Having this much weight within your bag and even the way you are carrying it can apply extra weight across your neck, shoulders, low back, and hips, resulting in pain and movement dysfunction if performed regularly. This goes for moms too who carry heavy purses or men who think it’s cool to have their messenger bag or backpack slung over one shoulder. You are doing yourself a disservice.
How To Carry a Backpack (And A Variety of Other Bags) Appropriately Without Pain?
Staying safe and pain-free while performing rigorous activities including carrying or lifting a backpack is very simple and easy to implement if you follow these great tips. We will discuss not only backpack safety but also safety with other bags and suitcases as well. I know not every child has a traditional backpack and I know these same children grow up to be adults just like us, so having carryover of these tips with other bags is just as important.
1. Your bag should be between 10-20% of your body weight.
In order to carry external weight appropriately, you want to have it in such a proportion to your body weight so that you can maintain proper alignment of your spine and other joint segments without excessive strain.
The suggested load for an adult backpack is the same as for a kid's backpack: aim to carry less than 20 percent of your body weight in your bag. Reduce the load to below this level to avoid potential back strains.
Ask yourself why your bag is so heavy. Unload every item in your bag onto a clean surface and analyze the reason you’re carrying each thing. You may be shocked by how many unnecessary items you take with you every day. Get in the habit of tailoring your bag contents to that day’s activities. There’s no need to carry an umbrella if it’s going to be sunny all day. Gym shoes can be carried in a separate bag for when you’re going to the gym.
Depending on your size or in this case, the size of your child, external weight can add up quickly. If you think about the weight of a textbook, which can be a few pounds, having only two to three textbooks and notebooks can already weigh over 10 lbs. With a child who is only 50 lbs., you are already at the upward limit....and this doesn't include their lunch, snacks, water, pens and pencils, etc.
2. If the backpack has two straps, make sure you use BOTH straps.
The purpose of both straps on a backpack is to evenly distribute the forces of the backpack across both shoulders. By wearing the backpack with only one strap, you are placing increased strain along the shoulder, neck, and lower back asymmetrically. If this bag is also heavy as mentioned above, this places even more stress to these areas.
If your backpack does only have one strap, fit it so that it is able to cross your body. By doing so you are more evenly able to distribute the weight across your body.
Also look at how thick the straps are on your purse or bag. The thinner the straps are, the less surface area they cover, and the less evenly the weight of the purse is distributed. Ideally, you want to spread the purse’s weight evenly and spaciously. This prevents one muscle group from carrying most of the load, resulting in back pain. If you use a shoulder purse, consider a style with thicker straps.
3. If your backpack has chest and/or waist straps, make sure you use them as well.
The additional straps that are on backpacks are not just for decoration or to make you look like you are more outdoorsy. They do serve an important purpose, especially if you are wearing the backpack for extended periods or carrying a heavy load. The chest straps on backpacks are necessary to take the strain off your shoulders, better distribute weight across the body, and bring the bag closer to your body so you have better ability to maintain stability. In this case, the chest strap limits lateral or side to side motion of the backpack. The same goes for the waist strap, which also provides a greater level of stability to the pack and brings the backpack closer to the body allowing the weight to be distributed more evenly.
The next question you may be asking is...How do I know if these straps are fitting correctly? That is what tip #4 is for.
4. Make sure your backpack is fitted to your body correctly.
An appropriately fitting backpack for your child or even for you is important to keep pain at bay. Inappropriate wearing patterns are most reasons why backpacks cause pain outside of excessive weight and other related injuries. When originally fitting the backpack, you want to make sure that the lower portion of the bag is above the waist. Both straps should be pulled tight enough so that there is minimal to no space between the bag and the back while at the same time enough space to breathe and move through full motion with both arms.
Once both shoulder straps are on, then we can move onto the chest and waist straps which become easy to fit at this point. When the straps are fastened, you can pull both snuggly tight. From here...you're good to go!
5. How to fit other bags including messenger bags and handbags.
Handbags are a special case as they are not necessarily something you can wear on your body. The same goes for tote bags if you are unable to sling the handles of the bags around your shoulders. Be conscious of alternating from one shoulder to the other so neither side of your body must bear the weight alone.
If you have a cross body bag or a messenger bag, try to follow the same basic principles. The bag itself should be positioned on the outside of hip and the strap should be positioned at the space where the shoulder meets the neck but angled so that most of the weight is positioned on the shoulder. Like above, make sure you are switching sides with these types of bags as well to prevent compensations and development of pain.
I hope this was helpful to you and gave some useful tips to take care of yourself and use your bags appropriately. If you are noticing pain, discomfort, or feeling like you are making some compensations due to your bags, please do not wait before you have significant issues. Please reach out to your favorite Doctor of Physical Therapy (hopefully that's me) and call 516-387-0053 or visit www.ascentptny.com today for more info about how we can help you! If you would like to find out how we can best help you, please use the link below to fill out an inquiry to set up a call with a Doctor of Physical Therapy.