An aching subject: Do backpacks cause back strain?

By Raya Tahan

Arizona Daily Wildcat

They carry textbooks and toothbrushes, folders, sunglasses, perhaps a pair of in-line-skates.

Backpacks can hold 40 to 50 pounds on a daily basis, said David Baker, owner of Summit Hut outdoor specialty stores. Is it all causing strain on our backs?

Probably not, said Bridgett Myers-Rice, a physical therapist at Arizona Contract Physical Therapists. University students usually have young, adaptable bodies. They can rebound from pressure because they are elastic, she said.

Peter Pizzutillo, a Philadelphia orthopedist, agrees: "In 20 years of practice, I don't think I could attribute one injury to backpacks. It's a very common question. There's just this intuitive concern that wearing a heavy backpack is a bad thing."

However, even if a backpack does not lead to permanent harm, it can cause temporary pain in the back and shoulders, Myers-Rice said.

"On days that I'm carrying a lot," said MIS sophomore Allison Miller, "I can feel it straining my shoulders and lower back."

The way the backpack is worn can mean all the difference. Neither the swinging-at-the-hips nor the over-the-shoulder-look is recommended, Myers-Rice said.

"The higher a backpack is worn on the shoulders," she said, "the easier it is on your spine because the weight is shifted and adapted to your lower body."

It is least stressful on the entire body if the straps are positioned across both shoulders, keeping the body symmetrical. Regularly applying all the weight can cause spinal complications. It may also lead to future disease in the arms and legs, Myers-Rice said.

If someone feels it is essential to wear a backpack over one shoulder, the side should be switched regularly, she said.

However, even the one-side look will not harm a person who carries the backpack for only several minutes per day, she said.

The shoulder straps should be well-padded to avoid pushing down on the muscles between the side of the neck and the top of the shoulder. That area is a pressure point which causes soreness and headaches, Myers-Rice said.

She also recommends keeping the notebooks and portable stereos at a minimum, because a backpack should not hold more than 25 percent of the person's weight. It should not be forcing a person to lean forward.

On the other hand, many strong, small people can safely carry more than 25 percent of their body weight. In which case that rule of thumb may be disregarded, she said.

A more likely backpack-induced problem is the worsening of a pre-existing condition, Myers-Rice said.

"If a person has good posture, it's probably O.K. But, if they already have one leg slightly shorter or minor scoliosis, it may be exasperated," she said.

The shape and basic design of the backpack has not changed over the years, Baker said, despite an influx of bright colors and fabrics. They range in price from $28 to over $100.

Oversize fanny packs and soft briefcases are also available. Myers-Rice said those are safe if they are symmetrically carried.

"The bottom line is, if you're feeling sore and it doesn't go away, adjust it," she said. "If it still doesn't go away, seek physical therapy."

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