Back(packing) to School

Back to school time is here for most schools in the Eugene area, which means people are getting their school supplies, textbooks, and accessories ready for the school year.  For many students, this involves a backpack – they’re pretty easy to carry and generally make getting around a school or campus with a lot of stuff easy to do. Backpacks are usually incredibly helpful.

While back pain is rare in younger, school age children, it’s not unheard of.  For students in high school and college age ranges, back pain becomes more commonplace.  Either way, carrying backpacks around is often an irritant to these individuals.

There are various reasons why a backpack may contribute to back pain, and some of these reasons are fairly easy to fix.  The most obvious solution is to make the backpack lighter if the backpack is too heavy, but it’s doubtful that you are reading this without having thought of that yourself.  It’s also entirely possible for some people that they don’t have the ability to exchange items in their pack throughout the day. Here are some other solutions that may give you or your child more relief with getting around with a bulky backpack.

  • Build strength – You can’t go wrong getting strong.  The back is made up of a lot of muscles, and when you look at how many muscles throughout the body impact the spine, that number creeps up quite a bit higher.  A great and relevant example is that the quadriceps, the muscles on the front of the thigh, act in part as shock absorbers for your spine.  Bottom line, strong quadriceps = less pressure on the back. Other muscles in the back and trunk are also important to consider, like the abdominals and back extensors.  Below are 3 exercises that can go a long way in making that backpack feel a little lighter. Try these exercises at least 3-4 times a week to build up the targeted muscles.
    • Goblet Squats – Goblet squats (pictured here) are a great way to build up the quads while also forcing the muscles of the upper back to stay upright.  Don’t have a weight? Use your backpack! Hold it by the straps or bearhug the pack right in front of your chest.  Do 2-3 sets, with each set going to fatigue. If you start to feel pain, you’ve already fatigued, so you can rest.
    • Supermans – Supermans (pictured here) are a simple but effective exercise to build up the muscles of the low and mid back.  If you feel pinching in the back, avoid going too high through the movement. Do 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps, holding for 3-5 seconds per rep.
    • Farmer Carry – If you’re having issues carrying heavy stuff, practice carrying heavy stuff.  You’ll get better at it! Farmer carries are basically just walking while carrying a weight by your side in both hands.  With farmer carries, you want to make sure that you feel your abdominal muscles working. To do this, stand up tall and then contract your abdominal muscles like you are bracing for someone to smack you on the belly.  If you can’t sustain that position while you’re walking, you’ve fatigued. You should pick an amount of weight that makes carrying the weight for 1-2 minutes challenging. Do 2-3 sets.
  • Alternate how you carry the backpack – Since building strength typically takes a while, it helps to have something else to do in the meantime while you’re still in pain.  One way is to change how you carry the backpack. Even if it’s only for short periods of time, carrying it in a different way can give the various tissues that are fatigued enough of a break to recover.  Carrying the backpack on the front of the body for a short period of time is one potential way since you can still use the slings. Be aware that this is likely to fatigue muscles of the upper back. Another option is to carry it by the handle or straps by your side. You want to make sure that you do so on both sides.  The last consideration here is your position while you’re actually carrying the bag on your back. It’s very easy to let your low back excessively arch or round when the weight gets heavy. If this is happening, do your best to bring your back into a straighter position.

When it comes to working on these problems, it’s easy to assume that college or high school age students are independent enough to work on these exercises without much guidance.  For the younger students, try incorporating these movements into games or challenges. Be aware, however, that back pain of any kind in younger children is rare, and it is worth getting them examined by their pediatrician or physical therapist before trying a lot of these out.

Backpacks are helpful for a lot of things, but we have a tendency to get a little carried away and put too much in them.  If it’s unavoidable that you have a lot to carry, try some of the exercises and suggestions out to see if they help. If you’re still having trouble, see a physical therapist first so you get back to school with one less worry.

Got questions?  Feel limited in what you’re able to do?  The staff at Limitless Physical Therapy in Eugene, OR can show you how to discover your future without limits.

***The above information, including text, images, and all other materials, is provided for educational purposes only, and not as a replacement or supplement to professional medical advice.  Please contact a certified healthcare professional or your primary physician for any personal concerns.

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