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Neck and back pain? It might be your backpack or phone

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About 85 percent of American university students report backpack related pain and discomfort, says a Boston University study. Discomfort was most common in the shoulders, lower back, upper middle back, and neck.

The findings may point to an emerging trend between pain and discomfort, and time spent carrying backpacks, suggested study co-author Dr. Karen Jacobs, a former president of the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) and a board-certified professional ergonomist.

“Most students – in fact, 84 percent of the study participants – are aware of the potential consequences of incorrect backpack usage,” Jacobs said in an AOTA news release. “There is a pressing need to better educate students on how to prevent discomfort.”

Erika McCormick, a senior psychology major, finds carrying a backpack problematic.

“My backpack is not only pretty heavy, it is awkward and my body has never really gotten used to carrying it,” she said.

Vilde Johansen, a senior marketing and global business management major, suffers from chronic back pain and carrying a backpack aggravates it.

“I injured my back a couple of years ago in a skiing accident, and have had chronic back pain ever since,” she said. “Carrying a backpack only makes it worse.”

Ameritech College of HealthCare reported that backpack related injuries send more than 2000 students to hospitals each year. With more than 79 million students wearing backpacks at any given time, the potential for injury is huge.

A 2016 Italian study of back pain, covering 5,318 Italian students ages 6 to 19, revealed two notable findings: Teen girls appear to experience more severe backpack-related pain compared to boys, and the time carrying the backpack- not the weight- is likely causing the pain.

The key takeaway of the study, published in the June 2016 issue of The Spine Journal, is if you don’t need to carry your backpack, put it down. Wear it only when you’re traveling from one location to another. Mindlessly wearing your backpack could end up compounding the problem.

More than 14,000 children are treated for backpack-related injuries each year, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Dr. Scott Bautch, of spineuniverse.com recommends practicing good backpack techniques by correctly fitting the backpack, properly loading the backpack, and choosing carefully what needs to be in the backpack.

The AOTA offers these words of wisdom, “pack it light and wear it right,” along with the following recommendations for choosing, packing and wearing a backpack.

Choosing a backpack:

Choose a backpack with a waist belt.

Choose a backpack with well-padded shoulder straps.

Choose the right size backpack. The bottom of the bag should rest at the curve of your lower back.

Look for a backpack with multiple compartments to distribute the weight more evenly

Packing your backpack:

Place the heaviest books closest to your back.

A loaded backpack should not weigh more than 10 percent of your total body weight.

Arrange items in the backpack so they won’t slide around.

Carry only what you absolutely need and no more.

Wearing your backpack:

Use both straps rather than slinging the pack over one shoulder.

Adjust straps so they are secure and feel comfortable.

Use the waist belt.

And for students and others who regularly tote backpacks, Dr. Bautch’s advice is simple:

“You get one body for a lifetime,” he said. “Good postural habits greatly improve your chances of living a healthy and fun life. When it comes to taking care of yourself, you can never start too early.”

Texting can also be a pain in the neck according to Kenneth K. Hansraj, MD, as reported by WebMD.

“We did a study on the issue of poor posture and how it affects you, especially when you’re on a cell phone or smart device,” said Hansraj, chief of spine surgery at New York Spine Surgery & Rehabilitative Medicine. “It’s a lot of load, an amazing amount of weight to be carrying around your neck.”

He says when your spine is in neutral position, the head weighs about 10-12 pounds. “When looking down at 15 degrees, the neck sees 27 pounds. At 45 degrees, it sees 49 pounds, and at 60 degrees, its 60 pounds.

That is 60 pounds of weight stress on muscles and nerves that are meant to handle 10-12 pounds of stress, and that much load can do a lot of damage over time.

“When you have such aggressive stressors on the neck, you get wear and tear on the spine,” said Hansraj.

Carina Logan, a senior global business major, has experienced neck pain when utilizing her electronics.

“I have definitely experienced neck pain looking down at my laptop all day long,” she said. “My neck starts to cramp up and it bothers me.”

Aletha Chappelear, DC, an Atlanta-area chiropractor, says she often sees patients with aches and pains that turn out to be related to their tech.

We’re seeing it a lot, especially in teenagers and college students, she says.

“We’re so into our electronic devices, and what we’re doing is holding the device at chest or waist level, and looking down at the device,” she said. “It’s causing neck muscles to be shortened and tightened, and shoulders to be rounded forward.”

The upper part of the spine is normally curved, she says, to allow nerves plenty of space to pass through the neck and out into the body. But when you crunch that space down, it can cause major problems down the line.

“There is a big cluster of nerves in the area between the neck and the shoulder,” she said. “Any compression, irritation, misalignment, muscle spasms, or tension in this area can cause pain that spreads out all the way down to the fingers.”

Any kind of neck, shoulder, or back pain requires some sort of attention, she says. You can:

Stretch at home

Get a massage

See a chiropractor or physical therapist

“If you’re not doing something consistently to reverse the amount of time you’re looking down, then you’re just going to make it worse,” Chappelear said.

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Neck and back pain? It might be your backpack or phone