Using both backpack straps may ease neck, shoulder strain

Joe Carlson

Unexplained soreness and fatigue in the neck, shoulders or back could signal that a student is overloading or misusing his backpack.
“We do see that it can be a problem,” said Karen Swanson, a registered physical therapist and athletic trainer.
In “The Effects of Backpack Loads,” author Collen Williams Low said researchers suggest a backpack load should be less than 30 percent of the carrier’s body weight.
And University orthopedic surgeon Matthew D. Putnam said the maximum load for a backpack should be only 20 percent of a person’s body weight.
The way a backpack is worn can also put a student at risk for injury. It is important to wear a pack over both shoulders and position it properly on the back. Physical therapist Elizabeth Schorn said wearing a backpack over one shoulder will “tighten up the muscles … and increase the wear and tear on one side.”
Monika Peters, a physical therapy intern at the University, said, “If you have it over one shoulder, your posture will be changed … and some muscles are going to get strained.”
The same risks apply to students who consistently wear heavy shoulder bags over one particular shoulder.
Lisa Young, who graduated in June from the College of Liberal Arts, echoed the opinions of many University students when she said she doesn’t like to wear her backpack over both shoulders.
“It looks dumb to use both straps,” she said, “and my coats are always too bulky.”
Electrical engineering senior Mary Jo Rawson, who carried a shoulder bag, said she preferred it because “it looked more professional than a backpack.”
Peters said that students who wear a bag over one shoulder should alternate shoulders to avoid developing an unbalanced posture.
Another factor in straining muscles is the backpack’s position. It should begin at the “base of the neck,” Schorn said, and the mid-portion should rest between the wearer’s shoulder blades.
If the load is worn too high on the back, it forces the wearer forward and increases pressure on the lower back. If it is worn too low, it forces the wearer backward and increases the pressure on the shoulders.
“You want a longer backpack that fits well … the tighter, the better,” Putnam said.
Jansport logistics coordinator Christie Cable urged students to pick the books they will need each day and leave the rest at home, rather than carry every book every day.
When buying a backpack, there are a number of features students should look for to help protect themselves from strain. One of the most effective is the lumbar strap, which fits around the waist.
“If you’re going to be carrying a heavy load, you’re going to want to use a waist belt,” Cable said.
Putnam explains that waist belts reduce strain on the back by holding the backpack’s weight around the center of gravity, which, in a walking person, is around the pelvic area.
Students should also make sure that the shoulder straps are wide, padded and strong.
“Wider straps can distribute the weight better,” Peters said. “A narrow strap will dig into your shoulders more.”
Putnam said, “The buyer should look for a pack with straps of at least 1 1/2 inches.”
Students should be aware of how to wear backpacks properly so they can prevent injuries before they happen, Cable said, because “once a back is hurt, it doesn’t get better.”