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4 Ways to Prevent Chronic Neck and Back Pain Caused by Backpacks

Posted by Renew Physical Therapy Portland on Saturday, September 1, 2018

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September marks back-to-school time and this also means that many kids and college students are donning backpacks—although backpacks aren’t just for students anymore. The versatility of backpacks, especially with all the gear people are carrying today, has translated into backpacks invading the work and travel markets too. Almost 200 million backpacks are sold every year and the number continues to grow.


Backpacks afford you the ability to take your belongings everywhere, which also means we are carrying around extra weight for long periods of time that our bodies were not necessarily designed to support. There has been a debate since 2003 on whether backpacks cause chronic back and neck pain. Eric J. Wall, MD, director of orthopedic sports medicine at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and a professor in the University of Cincinnati’s department of surgery, led early research on backpack injuries in children. In his study, published in 2003, only one of 346 students noted that back pain was related to wearing a backpack. With 200 million backpacks, that is still almost 600,000 Americans who could be at risk.


In a more recent 2013 study, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission cited 5,415 backpack-related injuries treated at emergency rooms. According to Karen Jacobs, EdD, OTR/L, CPE, a clinical professor of occupational therapy at Boston University and an expert on school ergonomics, “Wearing a backpack incorrectly or wearing one that’s too heavy can be a contributing risk factor for discomfort, fatigue, muscle soreness, and pain, especially in the lower back.”

Samantha Dutrow, PT, DPT, CSCS, a physical therapist at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital agrees, “Neck and shoulder pain can also stem from carrying a heavy backpack.”


  1. Lighten Your Load: Ideally your backpack should be less than 10-15 percent of your body weight. It is tempting to have everything available at any time. That is the convenience of a backpack, right? If you realize that you have unessential items, you may want to think about removing them.
  2. Get Good Support: The lack of support can be the largest contributor to neck and middle back pain. You want wide, padded straps. The more solid the straps, the better the weight gets distributed. Avoid backpacks with a narrow string that might dig into the skin. Keep straps snug so the backpack fits right against the back.
  3. Use Both Straps: When you are on the run it’s tempting to haul the backpack over one shoulder. When you have a heavy bag on the same shoulder for long periods of time, it will cause the shoulder to begin to roll forward and down which stretches the muscles in the upper back and neck. Plus, with every step you are creating uneven stress to your entire body. Take the time to put both straps on.
  4. Stretch and Exercise: Stretching and strength training are always good ways to prevent injuries. You can undo some of the stress caused by your backpack by taking a few minutes at the end of the day to do some stretches. Register which muscles are sore at the end of the day; shoulders, neck, back, and chest can all be impacted and feel tight and tender. Stretch those muscles out and find a routine that works for you. For best results, contact a physical therapist who can evaluate your need.

Visit our About Us page to learn more about our practice, clinic, and staff. You can also read more about our services for the treatment of Neck and Back Pain and Chronic Pain. Call us at 503.928.4914 to schedule an appointment.

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