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Backpack Basics

Medically reviewed by: Yamini Durani, MD

How Can Backpacks Cause Problems?

A backpack that isn't used properly can cause back problems or even injury. Here’s how:

  • By putting a heavy weight on your shoulders in the wrong way, the weight's force can pull you backward. So people who carry heavy backpacks sometimes lean forward. Because of the heavy weight and this unnatural position, they can develop shoulder, neck, and back pain.
  • If you wear your backpack over just one shoulder, or carry your books in a messenger bag, you may end up leaning to one side to offset the extra weight. You might develop lower and upper back pain and strain your shoulders and neck. 
  • Tight, narrow straps that dig into your shoulders can cause tingling, numbness, and weakness in your arms and hands.
  • Carrying a heavy pack can make people more likely to fall, particularly on stairs or other places where the backpack puts the wearer off balance.
  • People who carry large packs often aren't aware of how much space the packs take up and can hit others with them when turning around or moving through tight spaces, such as the aisles of the school bus. Students also can be injured when they trip over large packs or the packs fall on them.

How Do I Know if My Backpack Is a Problem?

You may need to put less in your pack or carry it differently if:

  • You struggle to get your backpack on or off.
  • You have to lean forward to carry your pack.
  • You have back pain.

If you adjust the weight or the way you carry your pack but still have back pain or numbness or weakness in your arms or legs, talk to your doctor.

How Should I Choose a Backpack?

Here are a few tips that will help make your backpack work for you, not against you:

  • Backpacks are a better option than shoulder or messenger bags for carrying books and supplies. That's because the weight of the pack is evenly spread out across your body. The strongest muscles in the body — the back and the abdominal muscles — support the pack.
  • Consider the construction. Look for a bag with two padded straps that go over your shoulders. The wider the straps, the better. Look for a backpack with a waist belt, which helps to spread out the weight more evenly across the body. Backpacks with multiple compartments can also help distribute the weight. And choosing a lightweight backpack helps keep the weight under control.

How Should I Use a Backpack?

Follow these tips to avoid back pain and other problems.

Lighten the load:

  • No matter how well-designed the backpack, less weight is always better. Use the bathroom scale to check that a pack isn't over 10% to 20% of your body weight (for example, if you weigh 120 pounds you shouldn't carry a backpack that weighs more than 12 to 24 pounds).
  • Use your locker often throughout the day instead of carrying the entire day's worth of books in the backpack.
  • Pack your backpack with the heaviest items closest to your back: 
  • Don't drop all your stuff in the main compartment. Use the side pockets to spread the weight out. 
  • If your pack is really heavy and you can't get around the number of books you need, take some of the books out of your pack and carry them in your hands.

Carry and pick up the backpack properly:

  • Use both shoulder straps. Bags that are slung over the shoulder or across the chest, or that only have one strap, may strain muscles. 
  • Tighten the straps enough for the backpack to fit closely to the body. The pack should rest evenly in the middle of the back and not sag down to the butt. 
  • Picking up the backpack the right way can help you avoid back injuries. As with any heavy weight, bend at the knees and grab the pack with both hands when lifting a backpack to the shoulders.

Strengthen your core:

  • A great way to prevent back injury is to strengthen the stabilizing muscles of your torso, including your lower back and abdominal muscles. Weight training, pilates, and yoga all are effective in strengthening these core muscles.
Medically reviewed by: Yamini Durani, MD
Date reviewed: June 2023