Weighed down: Are packs harming our backs?

By Amy Ren and Clare O'Connor, University of Chicago Laboratory High School

As students weave through the school, backpacks bounce behind them, slung over one shoulder, worn low on the back, or over both shoulders. Struggling to stand up, students hunch over and lock together as they clog the hallways.

While a backpack can be necessary equipment for high schoolers, back pain does not need to come with wearing one. However, discomfort is normal for many students.

After a day of carrying his backpack, Khairy Barnes’ back aches. Filled with materials for class, it weighs him down and forces him to hunch over.

“I kinda see my backpack as like, a giant rock,” the senior said. “I keep everything in my bag because, like, I just don’t want to go all the way up, back to my locker.”

Although Khairy recognizes that the weight of his backpack causes him back pain, he accepts the consequences.

“I feel like this is more something I’m just doing to myself. I could probably fix it, but like, it’s what works for me, and since I’m already so close to, like, getting out, I’m not going to bother to change it,” Khairy said, referencing his status as a senior.

For people like Khairy who don’t want to shuttle materials to and from their lockers, there are tips and tricks to alleviate back pain from heavy backpacks.

Douglas Dirschl, a professor and chairman of the University of Chicago department of orthopaedic surgery and rehabilitation medicine, said that there are some principles students can use to reduce pain in their backs, along with some general stretching and strengthening that can help prevent back pain.

“Try to balance the weight equally between both of your shoulders and on your hips or your waist,” Dr. Dirschl said. “And the best backpacks have a waist belt as well.”

According to Dr. Dirschl, more than half the weight of a backpack can be supported by the waist belt, taking some of the burden off your back and shoulders.

However, he recognizes that people’s habits can also help distribute weight properly.

I kinda see my backpack as like, a giant rock. I keep everything in my bag because, like, I just don’t want to go all the way up, back to my locker”

— Khairy Barnes

“Now what do most of us do? We just take one strap of the backpack and sling it over one shoulder, and then off we go,” Dr. Dirschl said, “and while that gets us from point A to point B, it’s not biomechanically the most sound way to use a backpack for your own long-term health.”

While most students will not need medical intervention because of overweight backpacks, they can still mitigate the effects of wearing a heavy backpack.

The recommended weight limit for a backpack varies based on many factors, according to Dr. Dirschl, such as a person’s size and strength, along with the backpack itself. Some backpacks, particularly ones meant for hikers, display a recommended weight limit.

“That isn’t because the seams of the backpack will rip apart if you exceed the weight limit, but rather because the bag is designed to help distribute that weight well for you,” Dr. Dirschl said. “If you go over that, then then you’re likely putting stress on your body that the backpack wasn’t designed to help reduce.”

Exceeding the recommended weight can cause someone to hunch over, since the pack cannot support it well. However, the distribution of weight within the backpack itself is also important.

“If the weight is distributed so that it’s a long ways away from your back, then that too makes it very hard to carry,” Dr. Dirschl said. “Generally, the heaviest items in a backpack should be fairly low and fairly close to your back.”

Along with changing the backpack itself, Dr. Dirschl also recommends exercises and stretches to prevent back pain. He says many YouTube videos work well.

The most important thing that any of us can do for our back health is to make sure that our core muscles are strong — everything from the top of the abdomen, all the way down to about your mid-thighs.”

— Douglas Dirschl

All of the muscles in the core are responsible for keeping your back upright and straight and supporting your body and any weight you carry,” Dr. Dirschl said. “Having a weak core is bad, very bad, for your overall back health.”

As for stretches, Dr. Dirschl recommends focusing on the hamstrings and shoulders.

“Keeping your hamstring muscles stretched is important because really tight hamstrings change how your pelvis is rotated and that puts different stresses on your back,” he said. “Most of us who live lives where we tend to get tense and anxious hold a lot of that tension in our shoulders, and keeping that stretched out can also be very helpful.”

While a heavy backpack can be unavoidable for many students, paying attention to the amount and distribution of weight and the backpack’s design can help ease back pain — and give the freedom to stand up straight and move as they wish.

This story was originally published on U-High Midway on April 13, 2022.