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Healthier Backpack Carrying to Get Better Exercise and Stop Back Pain

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Frequent news items report that wearing backpacks causes back pain in children and adults. Some of the usual theories proposed for why backpacks cause pain is "overstuffing them" or carrying them too high or low. Complicated and expensive packs are developed as remedies. Another of the often-repeated theories is that carrying things on your back makes you arch your back. However, none of these are the reason for back pain when carrying packs. It is not the pack that causes the pain or the arching. It is a very simple matter of allowing your back to arch and slouch backward instead of standing straight against the load.

In the photo, above left, of the backpacker, the upper arrow shows his upper body tilting backward instead of straight from mid-hip to shoulder. The lower arrow shows the lower body (the hip) tilting forward in front and out in back, instead of straight from mid-hip to the top of the leg bone. Between the two arrows, his lower back is overly arched and pinched (not neutral spine, but overly arched). The other hiker without the backpack standing near the sign is also overly arching the lower back.

The weight of his upper back plus the weight of his pack is pressing downward on the joints and soft tissue of the lower back (left drawing of x-ray image). This is how overarching causes lower back pain. It is not the backpack, but the body position while carrying it.

Lower back arching (hyperlordosis) when standing may seem "natural" but it is not healthy. Wetting your pants is natural too, but you have to learn to control it.

To reduce unhealthy overarching (hyperlordosis), use your muscles to move your spine to neutral. Try this:

  • To feel the problem of overarching, stand, lift your ribs, allow your upper body to lean backward. Allow your hip to tilt down in front and out in back. You may feel a familiar pressure in the lower back (left drawing).
  • Straighten your upper body by bringing ribs back down to level. Do not slouch or round forward; just stand straight without lifting your ribs.
  • Straighten your lower spine by bringing your "tailbone" under you until your hip is straight from the top of the upper leg bone to the middle of the crest of the hip bone, not tilted.
  • The motion of tucking the hip and pulling the upper body straight is like doing an abdominal crunch standing up.
  • The too-large inward curve of the lower back becomes the small inward curve of neutral spine (right x-ray drawing).

Whenever you carry a backpack, stand, walk, run, or exercise, use the same hip tilt to normalize your spine position and prevent overarching. Overarching is not healthy and is poor body ergonomics to walk around or exercise with your behind stuck out in back. The muscles you use to hold your spine from overarching are your abdominal muscles. You get free built-in abdominal muscle exercise just by standing in healthful position.

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Photo by Kim Pierro
Drawing of Backman!™ © copyright Dr. Jolie Bookspan
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About the Author


M.Ed, PhD, FAWM

Dr. Bookspan is an award-winning scientist whose goal is to make exercise easier and healthier.

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