Get off our back, pack: Backpack basics prevent long-term problems

By Ally Rogers

School can be a pain in the back (pack).

Students who regularly haul heavy backpacks are vulnerable to experiencing back pain, and if not treated or addressed, back pain can become chronic and cause lifelong injuries.

According to the American College Health Association’s 2010 National College Health Assessment, 12.5 percent of the more than 95,000 students surveyed were treated or diagnosed with back pain.

“I see about 30 to 40 students a semester,” Dr. Jeffrey Stinson of Lexington’s Stinson Chiropractic Center said. “Some back injuries are caused by backpacks and others are caused by the way people sit when they are studying.”

Stinson explained that back injuries related to backpack usage are preventable. He said typically these injuries are a combination of several factors – weight and uneven distribution of load carried, leaning forward or backward while walking and not using the correct type of bag.

Dr. Scott Black, team physician with UK HealthCare, said that bags with two shoulder straps and a waist belt are best because the weight is transferred to the hips making the pull on the shoulders less severe. He said using a one strap backpack, whether it’s a tote, messenger bag or a cross body bag, does not center the weight and causes awkward posture.

“Heavy loads and awkward posture—put these two together and you’re increasing the risk of an injury,” Black said, adding that the wear and tear at a younger age leads to long-term problems.

Brandon Jones, mechanical engineering student, said he began suffering back pain in high school. Throughout his years at UK, the pain has increased due to course load and class demands.

“I can’t fit all of my books in my bag. I’m lucky to fit one or two with my notes,” Jones said. “My bag weighs 30 pounds easily and that’s just for the two classes I’m taking this semester.”

Aside from correctly using a more effective backpack, Stinson said there are other ways to prevent back injuries and other resulting pains, such as headaches, and neck and shoulder injuries

“The weight should be no more than 20 percent of a person’s body weight,” he said.

He also said when packing the bag, heaviest items should be closest to the body.

Black suggested working out.

“Keep physically fit. The more fit a person is the less likely they are going to get injured,” he said.

Kyle Gramig, communications student, said that he has not sustained any back injuries or discomfort because he works out and maintains strong back muscles.

While he said each day he carries somewhere around 25 to 30 pounds in his bag, he was taught the proper way to use a backpack when he was in middle school. He said he uses two straps at all times and keeps the straps tight.

Lockers are an impractical way for students to lighten their load, Jones said.

“I need access to my books at all times,” he said.

Stinson also suggested taking out unnecessary items.

“Students carry books, notebooks, laptops, water and other small items, and all that stuff adds up quickly,” Stinson said, adding that if the items are not being used for any given day, students should leave the items at home.

Recent studies show that 50 to 70 percent of children suffer back injuries.

“There’s not a blanket statement about long-term or permanent damage,” Stinson said. “But injuries can produce dysfunctional areas in the spine down the road. It happens.”