Back to School Back Pain

In East Tennessee, most schools have started back at this point, including colleges now. For all ages, this means backpacks to haul supplies and books, and sometimes those bags get really heavy, especially in comparison to the size of the students. Poor backpack carrying habits can lead to aches and pains in students. Combine backpack carrying and poor sitting and standing postures throughout the day, and more and more children are starting to complain of back and/or neck pain as the school year progresses. But it doesn’t have to be painful!

Here are 3 easy steps you or your students can follow to minimize the likelihood of back and neck pain when wearing a backpack:

1. Wear both straps – Use of one strap causes one side of the body to bear the weight of the backpack, can change the curves in the spine which leads to abnormal muscle tension and can lead to pain. By wearing both shoulder straps, the weight of the backpack is better distributed and encourages better posture and equal muscle use between left and right sides.

2. Wear the backpack over the strongest mid-back muscles – The position of the backpack should rest evenly in the middle of the back. Adjust the shoulder straps so that students can put on and take off the backpack easily and allow free movement of the arms. Straps shouldn’t be too loose and the pack should not extend below the low back.

3. Lighten the load – This is probably one of the most difficult challenges facing students today! Ideally, keep the load at 10-15% of the student’s bodyweight. Carry only those items that are required for the day. Organize the contents of the backpack by placing the heaviest items closest to the back. Have students utilize their locker, if possible, to switch out materials during the day to keep the load lighter. Sometimes a second set of books are available so students don’t have to carry heavy books to and from school.

Backpacks aren’t the only factor in students developing back pain. Sitting all day in class with little to no physical activity or exercise for 6-8 hours during school can lead to lots of muscle and joint stiffness from lack of movement. If students then come home from school and sit in front of a TV or other screens (computers, phones, tablets, video games), their posture tends to get more and more slouched the longer they sit. Slouching and slumping in sitting places unneeded stress on the back and neck and can lead to pain.

How a Physical Therapist Can Help

Physical therapists can help you determine if a backpack is the correct size for your child and also help fit it to your child. Children come in all shapes and sizes and some have physical limitations that require special adaptations.

Physical therapists can help improve posture problems, correct muscle imbalances in strength and flexibility, and treat pain that can result from improper backpack use and prolonged sitting and inactivity. Additionally, physical therapists can also design individualized fitness programs to help children of all ages get strong and stay strong–and carry their own loads!

Take action today to help prevent students from developing back or neck pain from improper backpack use and prolonged bad posture during and after school!

Dr. Jeanne Williams, PT, DPT, OCS
We help endurance athletes (from beginners to pros) train and cross the finish line faster and injury-free!


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