Attack of the Backpack: Is Your Bag Too Heavy?

Backpacks are essential to a student’s life, but is your backpack causing more harm than good? It’s possible that carrying around a heavy backpack everyday can be the source of uncomfortable back pain and serious nerve damage.

This was the case for my mom when she was in grad school.  “It felt like pins and needles in my back. Not stabbing pain, but painful tingling,” my mom described. When the pain persisted, she visited health services and was diagnosed with potential nerve damage.

Many students complain about back pain and general discomfort carrying and lifting their bags, so how heavy is too heavy?

As a general rule, backpacks should be no more than 10% of a person’s weight. Backpacks weighing more than this can contribute to serious discomfort and health complications.

A study done in 2010 found that heavy backpacks cause curvature and compression of the wearer’s spines. In this study, the students were carrying backpacks that were about twice the recommended percentage which resulted in lumbar asymmetry.

Wearing backpacks over one shoulder can also be a contributor to back pain. It is recommended to use both straps in order to distribute the backpack’s weight evenly. Additionally, backpacks with narrow, tight straps can cause pain because they can dig into the shoulders, thus cutting off circulation. Numbness or tingling is a sign that the backpack’s straps are too narrow.

When picking out a backpack, there are several things to consider. Look for a backpack with thick straps and plenty of compartments, these features help distribute weight.  Pick a bag that is already pretty lightweight without anything inside. Avoid leather which can be heavy. Cotton is typically the best option because it’s lightweight and inexpensive. Last, find a bag with a padded back as well as padded straps.

Messenger bags are not a better alternative. They can cause the same damage that backpacks can. These bags do not distribute weight like most backpacks are designed to. It is best to stick with a traditional backpack.

Sometimes a heavy backpack is hard to avoid. Books, laptops, clothes, snacks, water bottles, and other essentials are needed throughout the day. So, if you are going to carry a heavy bag, there are a few things to keep in mind. Do you need everything that’s in your backpack? Sometimes items like water bottles can add unnecessary weight.  Clean out your bag regularly, miscellaneous items find their way into bags and can add to unneeded weight. Consider your schedule. If you have time to stop by your dorm between class, organize your books accordingly.

The way a bag is packed can greatly reduce discomfort when carrying it around all day. Put the heaviest item closest to your back. Don’t overfill the bag and put bulky items near the bottom of the bag.

My mom’s experience with nerve damage in grad school brings an overlooked health concern closer to home. Nerve damage can be easily prevented when students take simple steps to lighten the load of the everyday packs.