10 Ways to Avoid Neck or Back Pain from a Backpack

Backpacks are supposed to alleviate pain, not create it. But when worn incorrectly, they can cause you or your child to adopt postures that may give rise to spine problems. As 90 percent of students wear backpacks, a little knowledge on the relationship between backpacks and back pain may be in order. Below are 10 tips on how to avoid back pain for kids (and adults) who wear backpacks.

Observe Your Child's Spine

A doctor examines a young patient's spine.
Scoliosis is an abnormal side to side curve. sylv1rob1

Heavy packs may cause kids to change their spinal position to accommodate the load. This can result in back pain, and at worst, the possibility of temporarily compressed discs and posture problems.

Studies show that backpack wearers tend to begin adapting their posture once the weight of the pack reaches about 26 pounds. At an estimated 20 percent of the child’s weight, a backpack load may even begin to interfere with breathing.

And finally, if your child is small for his age or has experienced back pain, talk to your doctor about exercises he can do to strengthen the upper back. By having the right backpack and using it correctly, you child will avoid future back pain and problems.

Lessen the Load in the Backpack

Little boy with a big backpack.
Little boy with a big backpack. pepifoto / E+ / Getty Images

Most kids carry between 10 percent and 22 percent of their body weight in their back packs. Research shows that heavy loads may cause spinal discs to compress. As the weight of the backpack increases, so may the degree of disc compression. Experts recommend a backpack’s load be no more than 10 percent of the child’s weight.

Carry Only What Is Necessary

A school child wearing a large backpack.
A school child wearing a large backpack. Westend61 / Westend61 / Getty Images

Help your child manage the amount of heavy items she carries in her pack. Encourage her to stop at her locker and switch books out frequently. Consider purchasing a second set of textbooks to keep at home.

Organize the Backpack Properly

Organize what goes into your backpack.
Organize what goes into your backpack. Jupiterimages / Stockbyte / Getty Images

When you carry anything out away from your body, it takes more effort, and places stress on your joints and muscles. A good strategy is to put the heaviest items on the inside of the pack, close to your back. Carry the little things, like calculators, pens and loose paper toward the outside.

Also, backpacks come with a number of features to make it easier to carry heavy loads. One great item is a rolling back pack. Transporting heavy items like a backpack is a breeze when wheels are involved—just make sure the school allows them!

Get a Backpack With Padded Shoulder Straps

BAckpack. deslns

Many people complain about neck and shoulder pain when they wear a heavy backpack. Padded shoulder straps may be just the feature you’re looking for! The padded shoulder straps are generally wider than the more basic type, and may help even out the distribution of the pack's weight. This, along with the cushioning provided by the padding, may help to avoid pinching of the trapezius muscle so common with the basic type of strap.

Use Both Straps When You Wear a Backpack

Two school girls wearing back packs.
Two school girls wearing back packs. Klaus Vedfelt / Taxi / Getty Images

Whether it’s fashion or convenience that propels your child to sling his pack over one shoulder, know that such a practice can contribute to the development of poor posture habits. It can also cause pain on the side of the body that has to take the weight of the entire pack.

Center the Backpack Load

A school child wears a back pack.
A school child wears a back pack. mother image / DigitalVision / Getty Images

Studies show that loads of 18 pounds or more may create a temporary side-to-side curve in the spine. You can help your child by placing items so there is equal weight on either side of the pack.

Tighten the Straps of the Backpack

A school boy wears a loose back pack.
A school boy wears a loose back pack. Jose Luis Pelaez Inc. / Blend Images / Getty Images

One thing that can make backpacks seem heavier and more cumbersome than they are is to wear them with loose shoulder straps. Loose straps causes the pack to move around as you move. This may cause muscles to work harder than usual. By cinching the straps to fit your frame, you secure the pack. Balancing the weight should be easier this way.

Wear a Waist Belt

Backpack with waist belt.
Backpack with waist belt. Dorling Kindersley / Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images

Some packs come with waist belts. Waist belts take a portion of the load off the shoulders. By supporting some of the weight lower down, where the mechanical advantage is better, you may decrease neck pain and back pain above the waist.

Ask Your Child if She Has Back Pain

A school child wearing a back pack talks to her mother.
A school child wearing a back pack talks to her mother. Daniel Grilll / Tetra images / Getty Images

Encourage your kid to tell you about her aches and pains. Most of the time, the pain will be attributable to the pack. But there is the chance that the back pain is a symptom of an underlying condition or disease.

Back pain during childhood increases the risk for back pain during adulthood. If adjusting the weight (and its distribution) of the pack and counseling your child on managing the load during the day doesn’t alleviate their back pain, see a doctor.

Also, explain to your child that ignoring pain in her back or shoulders could lead to injury. Tell her to let you know right away if she experiences any discomfort.


Briggs, AM, et al. Thoracic spine pain in the general population: prevalence, incidence and associated factors in children, adolescents and adults. A systematic review. BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2009 Jun 29 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19563667 Erica Weir. Avoiding the back-to-school backache. CMAJ. 2002 September 17 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC122033/?tool=pubmed Neuschwander, T. MD, et. al. The Effect of Backpacks on the Lumbar Spine in Children: A Standing Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study. Spine: Vol 35 Issue 1. Jan 2010

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