Back pain is the single leading cause of disability in the world, according to the World Health Organization. The unfortunate truth is, adults aren’t the only ones affected. Children and adolescents also commonly suffer from back pain (some estimates are up to 1 in 3!)
Can Heavy Backpacks Cause Chronic Back Pain?
The Spine Health Institute reports, “In a large study, over 33% of children between the ages of 11 and 14 years old noted back pain. The students that carried heavier backpacks reported more back pain than those that carried a lighter load. Heavy backpacks are believed to increase lumbar disk compression, lumbar curvature, and muscle fatigue, all of which may lead to back pain.”
According to Spine-Health, “The back will compensate for any load applied to it for an extended period of time. A heavyweight carried in backpacks can:
- Distort the natural curves in the middle and lower backs, causing muscle strain and irritation to the spine joints and the rib cage,
- Lead to rounding of the shoulders, and
- Cause a person to lean forward, reducing balance and making it easier to fall.”
While it’s common to notice muscle aches at the end of a long day of carrying a heavy backpack or purse, it’s the long-term effects of constantly compensating for a heavy load that are worrisome.
“Over time, the amount of strain that we put on our bodies due to oversized bags can cause some pretty serious pain and even long-term issues like muscle spasms or a pinched nerve,” explains Caleb Backe, a health and wellness expert for Maple Holistics.
Off-the-shoulder bags are no better, unfortunately. Oklahoma chiropractor, Dr Caleb Spreiter explains, “We’re creatures of habit and tend to carry things with the same arm.”
Boy Reportedly Undergoes Surgery to Correct Backpack Injury
Zahir Ali is a concerned uncle who posted concerning family photos on Facebook in hopes of warning other parents and caregivers.
“This is an eye opener for parents whose children attend primary school. The photos are images of my nephew who attended primary school and, due to his heavy book bag, he started walking with a bend and complained of back pain. On visiting the doctor, he had to undergo major surgery to rectify the problem. I plead with you, don’t allow your child to lift a heavy school bag on his/her back.”
We wish this young man a speedy recovery from his surgery!
How to Prevent Back Pain from Heavy Backpacks
If you’re using a messenger bag or a large tote instead of a backpack, Dr. Spreiter recommends at the very least making a conscious effort to alternate between your shoulders and to avoid bags with thin straps altogether.
What’s more, Spreiter suggests counteracting the effects of heavy bags by adding a daily stretch to your routine. Focus on resistance training shoulder and upper back exercises to help strengthen the muscle groups that are carrying your heavy load.
Toronto-based chiropractor, Dr Jonas Eyford also recommends using a tension ball to work out the tension in your muscles on a daily basis.
The scientific community is still in disagreement about whether there is enough clinical research to prove that heavy backpacks can cause long-term back pain in children and adolescents, but most chiropractors, parents, and family doctors would encourage a “better safe than sorry” approach.
In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents and caregivers take the following precautions:
- Choose a backpack with wide, padded shoulder straps and a padded back.
- Pack light. Organize the backpack to use all of its compartments. Pack heavier items closest to the center of the back. The backpack should never weigh more than 10 to 20% of your child’s body weight. Go through the pack with your child weekly and remove unneeded items to keep it light.
- Remind your child to always use both shoulder straps. Slinging a backpack over one shoulder can strain muscles.
- Adjust the pack so that the bottom sits at your child’s waist.
- If your school allows, consider a rolling backpack. This type of backpack may be a good choice for students who must tote a heavy load. Remember that rolling backpacks still must be carried upstairs, they may be difficult to roll in snow, and they may not fit in some lockers. And review backpack safety with your child.
When to See a Doctor About Back Pain
Although back pain is common, it shouldn’t be dismissed. If you or your child are experiencing any of these red flags along with back pain, you should seek medical attention immediately (WebMD):
- Pain that began after a known injury/trauma
- Numbness or “pins and needles” sensation
- Any history of cancer, low immune function, osteoporosis, or chronic steroid use or IV use
- “Foot drop” (you keep tripping on your own feet or feel like you need to lift your foot higher than usual while walking)
- Nighttime pain
- Unexplained weight changes
- Under the age of 4, or over the age of 70
- Chronic pain
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