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Backpacks and Back Pain - cause or coincidence?

As most school children resume their studies for the year, it's a good time to look at an old favourite topic of discussion - those heavy backpacks!!! It is assumed that the heavier the backpack (and the more the child struggles, groans, complains and rolls their eyes when asked to carry it) the more likely they are to experience back pain, right?

Well, yes......and no.

Adolescent back pain has been well-researched, and like all good physios, we try to keep up to date with what the research says, particularly when it challenges what we may have been taught (just a few years ago at Uni) or what we assume.

Interestingly, the most common finding on back pain research (for adults and kids alike) is that the cause is multi-factorial - there is always more than one cause or factor.

The main factors causing back pain among adolescents are:

  • Anthropometry - Height & Weight/BMI

  • Lifestyle factors - Physical Activity vs. Sedentary Activity

  • Mechanical load - this could be Heavy schoolbags, but also repetitive activities or sports training

  • Psychological, social and behavioural factors

(Epidemiology of low back pain in children and adolescents. Archives of Disease in Childhood. 2005;90(3):312-316)

This would suggest that heavy backpacks alone are not going to wreck your child's back!! It's just not that simple.

So while it can be tempting (and time-efficient!) to "help" your young child by carrying their backpack, or perhaps you feel the need to lecture your older child for being disorganised when they carry every textbook they own around daily, it may be that their backpack is a form of strength training. Combine that with an active and varied lifestyle, less time on the couch and more time seeking "happy" experiences, and you will be giving your child a greater chance of experiencing a healthy, pain-free life.

(PS: but it would be good if students got a little more organised and only carried the text books they needed on the day!!!!!! Hope my kids read this).

Disclaimer: apparently as physios we need to cover ourselves legally in case someone uses this article as the basis to ignore their whingeing child who has been complaining a lot about back pain and tell them to stop complaining and get stronger when in fact something significant is going on! Whilst this is always a tempting comeback, we do recommend that you seek professional advice to make sure that they are not actually legitimately suffering significant back pathology!!! By professionals, we suggest your friendly neighbourhood physio, of course!! And if we do rule out any other significant issues, we will then give you permission to tell them to stop complaining and get stronger.

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