Health Journal: Lighten your load

Lindsay Adams

Carrying a backpack or bag to and from school can be a heavy pain in the neck — and, of course, the back. Carrying a heavy bag can cause serious chiropractic problems. The U.S. Department of Human Health and Services reports more than 19 million doctor visits per year are due to back pain. Sometimes a student’s book load can’t be changed, but changing how the backpack is carried and how it is packed can make a difference.

“Research suggests that wearing a backpack incorrectly, wearing one that is too heavy, the amount of time one carries a backpack, the distance walked, inadequate distribution of weight in the backpack and poor placement of items in the backpack can be contributing risk factors for discomfort, fatigue, muscle soreness, musculoskeletal pain (especially in the lower back), respiratory problems and other issues,” Karen Jacobs, a Sargent College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences clinical professor and nationally recognized expert on backpack safety, told BU Today.

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, in 2011, nearly 14,000 students ages 5-18 were hospitalized for backpack-related injuries — and that’s without counting college students. There is ongoing talk about children carrying too much, but adults are just as susceptible to back problems from carrying heavy loads.

Having a klutzy moment? Blame it on the backpack. Carrying too much weight in your backpack can seriously impede ability to perform basic movements such as using stairs and opening doors.


If a backpack leaves red marks on the shoulder or causes a tingling or numbness, it is probably too heavy. If students are unable to cut down on books, they should opt for a rolling backpack instead.

Carrying a backpack over one shoulder can cause

postural misalignments: vertebrae can be pushed out of alignment, which restricts movement and can lead to back and neck pain, as well as headaches. Carry a backpack over both shoulders, using both straps. Using the strap across the stomach can also help spread the weight correctly.

When packing a backpack, make sure that the heaviest items are closer to the back of the backpack, which is nearer to the body. Or if packing bottom to top, place heavy items such as large textbooks and tablets at the bottom, and keep water bottles in the side compartments. The goal should be to distribute the weight evenly to avoid postural stress.

A backpack shouldn’t hang too low, but should be at the shoulders. Carrying a bag closer to the body will reduce the amount of postural sway. The more torque and tension, the more stress is placed on the spinal muscles.

Students should make sure their backpacks weigh less than 15 percent of their body weight to help alleviate chances of spinal problems and pain. The recommended limit is 10 percent the carrier’s total bodyweight.