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Can a Backpack Damage Your Spine? How heavy is too heavy

A backpack that is too heavy can cause permanent damage to the spine. Here's what you can do to be safe.

How much should a backpack weigh

Wearing a backpack that is too heavy can cause back pain, neck pain, numbness and tingling in the arms and hands, and weakness in the arms and hands. Done repetitively or for long periods of time, this practice can potentially damage the spine and sensitive nerves of the neck and back.

How heavy is too heavy for a backpack?

In the study titled Recovery of Brachial Plexus Lesions Resulting from Heavy Backpack Use, the authors looked to answer this question.

Spanning a 6 year period, the study evaluated 193,450 military recruits who had to carry heavy backpacks on a regular basis. Using a questionnaire focused on symptoms such as weakness in the arms and hands as well as sensitive nerve tests, the researchers were able to identify those recruits who experienced Brachial Plexus Lesions (damage to the nerves that come from the neck and travel down the arm).

Based on the information gathered from this study, the authors determined that damage to the spine and nerve damage will likely occur with the use of a backpack weighing approximately 40 kg (88 pounds).

As a chiropractor, the weight presented in this study far exceeds any backpack recommendation that I would make to one of my patients.

For children, the American Chiropractic Association recommends the weight of a backpack not exceed 10% of the child’s body weight (eg. a 7 pound backpack for a child that weighs 70 pounds). For adults who carry a backpack on a regular basis, I believe this 10% rule is still a safe recommendation. For less frequent and short term use, a healthy adult (with no spinal problems or other health related issues) should be able to handle a backpack ranging from 15 to 18 percent of their body weight depending on their level of strength and fitness.

If you are overweight or have any health condition that may be exacerbated through exertion or added weight to your back, check with your chiropractor before following these recommendations.

Keep in mind, abnormal stresses are forced on the cervical, throacic and lumbar spine (neck, mid back and low back) any time you carry a backpack. These stresses can lead to spinal misalignments, irritation to the joints of the spine, and compressive forces to the discs and spinal nerves. For those of you who have a passion for hiking with a backpack or simply use a backpack to carry books to school, following these weight recommendations and getting a routine spinal check-up by your chiropractor will help to keep you active and feeling great.

I have created a backpack safety guide to help with the selection and use of a child's backpack. Click here if you would like to download this one-page guide.

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Wishing you good health,

Dr. Hagman

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