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By Vivian Manning-Schaffel

We’re carrying more baggage around than ever before — and by baggage we don’t mean the emotional weight of traumas past and present. We literally mean baggage: kids are lugging around hefty textbooks, bulging folders and their lunch, dumping more weight into their backpacks (and onto their backs) than ever before. Adults are no better; we’re overstuffing our purses or workbags full of essentials and just-in-case items that leave us lopsided.

It’s no wonder so many of us suffer from back pain. According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, as many as 75-85 percent of Americans will experience back pain at some point in their lives. According to 2012 report about Musculoskeletal Pain Disorders from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), over 20 percent of American adults suffered from lower back pain, more than 14 percent suffered from neck pain and almost 10 percent struggled with sciatica. Considering the U.S. population that year clocked in at over 310 million, that’s a lot of hurting.

What’s more, according to a 2016 NPR – Truven Health Analytics Poll, more than half of the people surveyed said they suffered from lower back in the past year. Though more than half of those who suffered said they treated their pain without going to the doctor (most back pain resolves on its own), the most commonly recommended treatment offered by doctors was prescription painkillers — often opioids — by a staggering 40 percent.

Considering, over 1000 people are admitted to emergency departments for abusing prescription opioids per day according to the CDC, opioid deaths are at a staggering high. All this said, it might behoove us to try and do anything and everything we can to prevent chronic neck and back pain in the first place — starting with what we choose to tote around.

Heavy Bags Hurt Kids

Aside from scoliosis, spine health wasn’t traditionally considered a serious health matter for kids, yet weighty backpacks are fast becoming a legitimate matter of concern. A 2014 study, published in Spine, used MRIs to analyze how heavy backpacks affected the lower backs of kids feeling lower back pain and those who didn’t. As it turns out, the kids with previous pain and heavy backpack loads suffered from disc compression in their lower backs, which can lead to painful problems down the road. Another study scanned the backs of children aged 11-to-13 carrying backpacks that accounted for approximately 10, 20, and 30 percent of their body weight. Not only did the kids with heavier backpacks experience disc compression, they noticed some lumbar asymmetry, or lower back curvature. Yet another study, conducted in Poland, confirmed heavy backpacks can alter the shape of a young person’s spine. A fourth study, referenced in Science Daily, found that heavy loads carried on the back in formative years have the potential to damage the soft tissues of the shoulder, causing microstructural damage to the nerves. At best, this leads to what they call “simple irritation.” At worst, it damages the nerves, ultimately “inhibiting movement of the hand and dexterity of the fingers.”

Natalie Lovitz, Clinical Director of Professional Physical Therapy in New York City, says heavy or improperly worn backpacks or bags can lead to back problems and poor posture, but also shoulder problems and headaches.

But Adults Aren't Immune to the Effects of Heavy Bags and Purses

By overstuffing purses and workbags, adults just make whatever back problems they have, worse. “Where backpacks evenly distribute weight on each side, many adults choose appearance over function with handbags, briefcases or tote bags,” says Lovitz. “Wearing a bag on one side can cause or reinforce muscle imbalances in the shoulders and spine. Those imbalances can also occur all the way down the chain, and can cause other issues, such as changes in gait — the way your body normally walks.”

By overstuffing purses and workbags, adults just make whatever back problems they have, worse.

Lovitz says symptoms of burgeoning back issues include headaches or strained muscles in the shoulder, neck and lower back, while or after using your bag. “You may also notice an increased forward head posture and rounded shoulders when catching a glimpse of yourself,” she says, adding you should especially pay attention if pressure from the straps cause numbness, tingling or circulation loss when very heavy.

Give Your Bag a Health Makeover

How to make things better? Get all Marie Kondo about your bag and sort through it regularly to see what you really need. By all means, only tote essentials. “Also ask yourself how to better distribute the load,” says Lovitz. “Rearranging the bag by putting heavy items closer to the body and at the bottom of the bag can help.” Another tip is to do the same to your wallet, which can easily bulk up in weight without you consciously knowing it.

To make carrying whatever you need to easier, Lovitz says strengthening the muscles around your shoulders, neck and back can promote better posture and allow you to properly carry the load of your bag. Also, don’t forget to stretch out any kinks after putting your bag down. “Stretching tight muscles regularly can be a useful way to recover (from carrying a heavy bag or backpack),” she says.

Your child’s backpack should only weigh in at about 10-15 percent of their body weight.

When shopping for purses, work bags or backpacks in the future, Lovitz says there are a few things to look for — other than cuteness. “The closer it lies to your body the better. Smaller sizes are typically better — the larger the bag, the more likely you are to fill it. The same thing goes for straps – the smaller the shoulder strap, the better. The further the bag is away from your center of gravity, the more strain the bag will cause,” she says.

How can we save the next generation from developing chronic back issues as they get older? Make sure their backpacks fit close to their little bodies and fight for their right to lug around less. Though the common argument is that classroom real estate is at a premium, it’s well worth having a conversation with your child’s teachers to see if they might help institute policies that lighten their load. According to Lovitz — and the studies mentioned above — your child’s backpack should only weigh in at about 10-15 percent of their body weight. Far too many kids are carrying twice that each day. What a pain in the neck.