Six Tips for Safer Backpack Use


Six Tips for Safer Backpack Use

Posted By Meredith Ehn, DO, DPT


Backpacks are no longer just for kids — with office-friendly features and fashion-forward designs, today’s backpacks are great for transporting everything today’s professional needs for day.

However, improperly used backpacks can injure muscles and joints, leading to neck pain, back pain and shoulder pain.

Here a six suggestions for proper and safe backpack use:

  • Pack light. Studies have shown that loads greater than 15–20% of the wearer’s bodyweight are associated with the development of pain. Decreasing the overall weight that you carry can be achieved by leaving what you can at home or school. Or, for students, stopping at your locker frequently during the day.
  • Think about fit. When choosing a backpack, look for one that is lightweight with wide, padded shoulder straps, and a padded back. A waist strap can help decrease load through the neck and shoulders.
  • Strap in. Always use both shoulder straps to distribute the weight across both shoulders. Tighten chest straps so that the load is close to your back. 
  • Pack smart. Organize the items inside so that heavier items are positioned low and close to the back.
  • Lift safely. If your backpack is heavy, bend your knees to lift rather than bending from the waist.
  • Consider rolling instead. If neck, back or shoulder pain persist, try a rolling backpack.

Is your backpack just too heavy? Here are four signs that you’ve taken too much with you:

  • You struggle to pick up and put the backpack on your back.
  • You have pain in the back, neck and shoulders during or after backpack use.
  • You have numbness and tingling in the arms (this can be caused by shoulder straps that are too narrow).
  • You find yourself leaning forward while wearing the backpack.

If you experience any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor, pediatrician or a physiatrist for a medical evaluation. Symptoms typically resolve with physical therapy, which can include problem solving ways to adjust the load.  One important note: though linked to posture problems, heavy backpacks do not cause scoliosis.

Meredith Ehn, DO, DPT, is a physiatrist in the Musculoskeletal Medicine group at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, and an assistant professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Dr. Ehn’s medical practice focuses on non-surgical treatment of spine and musculoskeletal conditions, and her research investigates injury prevention for skiers, cyclists, triathletes and runners.

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