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Shoulder Pain and Backpacks

Backpacks, also known as Rucksacks, are a staple among students all around the world.

School assignments, books, pens, pencils and paper are kept at the ready.

As useful as they can be, however, they can cause serious shoulder and back problems.

The United States Product Safety Commission reported, in May 2002, that almost 6000 students each year go to the emergency room with a backpack related injury.

First Problem with Shoulder Straps

One of the biggest problems with carrying a rucksack with only one strap is that the weight of the bag is not distributed evenly.

One shoulder must bear the entire weight of the bag which can cause muscle stiffness. Numbness and tingling in the arm can occur if the weight of the rucksack is heavy enough to cause blood vessel or nerve compression or if the shoulder strap is too narrow.

Muscle spasms are common in the shoulder carrying the sack due to the strain of the increased weight.

In an attempt to distribute the weight more evenly, students over-compensate by leaning to the opposite side placing undue stress on the spine and spinal muscles.

Injuries are common in the shoulder, neck and spine on the opposite side because of the attempt to even out the weight. 

Second Problem with Shoulder Straps

It is not enough to purchase a rucksack with two straps or to even carry the sack using both straps. Many carry the sacks too low on the back and by doing so roll their shoulders forward in an attempt to redistribute the weight.

Carrying the sack lower on the back shifts our center of gravity which pulls unnecessarily on the muscles in our shoulders and back. 

Unnatural spinal compression is a possibility as we arch our backs or bend forward at the hips in an attempt to carry a rucksack that is too heavy and carried too low on the back.

Research studies are ongoing looking into the long-term effects of carrying a backpack.

There is concern that children, who are still growing and developing, may develop scoliosis or curvature of the spine or may have long term damage that will show up later in life. 

Selecting a backpack

When selecting a backpack for your child keep in mind some guiding principals:

  1. Look for lightweight material that will not add a lot of weight to the load.

  2. Make sure there are two wide padded shoulder straps.

  3. Look for a belt for the waist, and be sure your child uses it, to help distribute the weight more evenly.

  4. Compartments that will help your child to organise the supplies instead of having everything thrown in which increases the weight at the bottom of the sack.

  5. A rolling backpack can be a great substitution but only if your child uses it appropriately.

  6. Choose a backpack that is no wider than the torso of your child.

Lift and carry your backpack properly

Selecting the proper backpack is a positive first step. The next step is teaching your child how to lift and carry it properly.

  1. To properly lift the rucksack, stand facing the sack, bend the knees slightly, using both hands to lift the sack up push with the legs as you straighten up. Apply one shoulder strap at a time.

  2. Tighten the shoulder straps so that the sack sits close to the body. Be sure the strap pads are resting on top of the shoulder.

  3. Fasten the waist belt.

It is recommended by many physicians and physical therapists that we carry no more than 10% of our weight on our back.

Students often carry an average of 20%. Encourage your child to carry only what is totally necessary.

If your child leans to one side, arches the back or leans forward, chances are the pack is too heavy. 

Our children face enough health risks in life today, carrying a backpack improperly or one that is too heavy shouldn’t be one of them.

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