BY LIZA BARNES for SPARKPEOPLE
Exams. Pop quizzes. Homework. School can be a pain in the neck, figuratively. But if school is literally causing problems for your neck or back, your backpack may be to blame. Believe it or not, overloaded and poorly-positioned backpacks can actually cause serious injury. In a 2004 study published in the Journal of Pediatric Orthopedics, 64 percent of 11- to 15-year-olds who used backpacks also complained of pain.
If you’ve ever had back or neck pain, you know how uncomfortable it can be. The pain is often caused by pressure on the disks of the vertebrae. These disks are responsible for spacing out the vertebrae, holding them in place, and acting as shock absorbers. As you get older, your disks wear down or degenerate, causing chronic pain, herniated disks, and nerve damage. Putting pressure (like the added weight of a heavy backpack) on these disks wears them down even faster.
So what’s a student to do? The stuff inside that pack is essential to survival (or at least to passing math), but you don’t want to pay a painful price in years to come. Fortunately, following a few simple rules can ensure that you’re using your backpack properly and safely.
Choose the right sized pack. Adult-sized backpacks are made for adults, not children. Make sure to buy a pack that is appropriate for your body size. Most stores and catalogs list this information in the product description. If not, just ask. A general rule of thumb is that when the shoulder straps are adjusted so that they are snug, the bottom of the backpack should be about two inches above your waist.
Lighten your load. Your filled backpack should weigh no more than 15 percent of your body weight. (Multiply your weight in by .15 to get the maximum weight you should carry.) A 140-pound person should carry no more than 21 pounds, and an 80-pound child should keep it under 12 pounds. To lighten the load, first remove any non-essentials. Even an extra hairbrush and a few notebooks can add weight. If your bag is too heavy, even when pared down to the basics, remove a textbook and carry it in your arms.
Lift with your legs. To lift and put on your backpack properly: face the pack, bending at your knees — not your waist — then lift with your legs and apply one shoulder strap and then the other.
Position your pack properly. Wearing your backpack on one shoulder can cause muscle strain and imbalance. Wear both shoulder straps, and adjust them so that they are comfortably snug. If the backpack has a waist strap, use it. It will distribute the weight of the pack more evenly. And position your body properly too, by maintaining good posture while you’re wearing your pack (and even when you aren’t!).
Get and stay fit. Maintaining your overall fitness by exercising and staying active can increase your strength and ability to carry heavy backpack loads, which will reduce your chance of injury. Cardio, strength training and flexibility are essential to your health and fitness.
Set a time limit. Try to wear your backpack for 30 minutes or less. Unless you’re on an all-day hike or jaunting across a sprawling campus, this rule shouldn’t be hard to follow. If you’re stuck wearing it for longer periods, try to carry the lightest load possible, and try to follow all of the other rules to a “T.”