Backpacks – Are They Causing Back Pain In Children?

Are backpacks a potential reason children are having so much back pain?  Recent evidence suggests this may be the case.  It is also a reasonable assumption from a bio-mechanical perspective.  After all, a child wearing a backpack is essentially adding 10, 20, maybe even 30% of their body weight to their spine.  So, could this be the cause of their pain, are there any long term effects, and how can we solve this problem?

How do backpacksbackpacks contribute to pain?

Just like blood pressure and body temperature, there’s a range of acceptable and unacceptable for spinal alignment.  As you move farther away from this range of normal, you may develop a number of secondary conditions, or symptoms.  When a child adds a substantial amount of weight to their spine, it changes this normal alignment.  A recent study found that backpacks change 2 key spinal measurements.

  1. Vertebral Discs – Researchers used MRI and determined that increased weight compresses the discs. These discs are important because they act as a cushion between spinal bones.
  2. Spinal Curve – The same researchers found that backpacks increase the curvature of the lower spine beyond normal. When this happens, it shifts where the load is placed upon the spine.

Both of these contribute to pain.  The reason being, it puts abnormal strain on your discs and changes the normal curve.  When this happens, your muscles and ligaments need to compensate to absorb the abnormal load.  Prolonged strain will cause your muscles to tighten up and become irritated.  This can lead to trigger points and other painful conditions.

Are there any potential long term effects?

I am not sure there is any literature on the long term effects currently.  However, have you ever heard the expression, “as the twig bends so grows the tree?”  Essentially, the phrase references the fact that things occurring early in life can affect you later on.  From this perspective, things that cause abnormal spinal alignment now may propagate changes down the road.

For example, what happens if you start compressing discs at an early age?  Is it possible the ligaments and bones may start to wear down earlier than they should?  The same idea can be applied to abnormal spinal alignment.  When you are not within a normal range of spinal alignment, stress is placed on areas of the spine it shouldn’t be.  This stress requires your body to compensate and may contribute to future degeneration.

Now, I am not saying that backpacks undoubtedly lead to future complications.  I am not aware of any literature where researchers show the long term effects of back page use.  However, from a mechanical standpoint, it doesn’t seem out of the question to suggest it could lead to future problems.  If this is so, isn’t it better to address it early on?

What can we do?

Back pack use is different for adults versus children.  The reason being, the addition of 20 pounds to a 160-pound adult is different than adding 20 pounds to an 80-pound child.  For that reason, growing children need a few strategies to spare their back.  According to this article, children should:

  • Keep the weight of the backpack under 10% of the child’s weight
  • Load heaviest items closest to the child’s back. When heavy items are closer to the body, it places less stress on the spine, muscles, etc.  Need to experience this yourself?  Hold a 20-pound dumbbell next to your chest.  Now, straighten your arm and hold the weight out.  You will experience the difference.
  • Make sure your child is using both straps of the backpack, rather than slinging one over the shoulder. This will help create more symmetrical distribution of the weight.
  • If the backpack is too heavy regularly, consider a backpack with wheels.

There are probably many more strategies available and a quick search on Google will certainly help you out.

I grew up using a backpack – most of us did.  Who would have thought we may be hurting ourselves?  With an epidemic of neck and back pain on the rise in the United States, we need to evaluate every possible contributor.  It appears reasonable that backpacks may participate in back pain and could play a role in future complications of the spine.  Fortunately, there appear to be strategies available to less the burden of education on our spines.  You only get one – let’s take care of it.

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