One of the handiest and been-around-for-centuries accessories can also be the cause of some severe shoulder pain and even injury. Backpacks – worn by hikers, travelers, college students and school-age kids – are a go-to solution for lugging around the day’s necessities, BUT incorrectly wearing a backpack can lead to serious pain and pressure on the neck, shoulders, and back. Stuffed with books, water bottles, computers, and other accessories, backpacks can hold up to 30 pounds of extra weight, and if not appropriately worn this could cause some severe strain on the shoulder muscles. Believe it or not, there are correct and incorrect ways to wear a backpack. Paying attention to and getting into the habit of wearing one the right way can help you avoid aches and pains later on. It can take a few weeks to get comfortable with the proper mechanics, but these tips and tricks will help you protect your shoulders.

If you’re like most people heading to class or out for a hike, you load up with as much as the backpack will hold, swing it over one shoulder and head out the door. Wearing a backpack on one shoulder may be the trendier or more convenient choice, but that much extra weight on one shoulder is a recipe for disaster. Using only one strap causes you to walk off balance and leads to poor posture. Even if you’re switching back and forth between shoulders, it’s just impossible to stand and walk with proper posture with all the weight distributed on one side of your body. The first rule of thumb- always use both straps of your backpack to spread the weight evenly over both shoulders and the upper back. Dividing up the load will lessen the amount of weight one shoulder is responsible for, and make your pack feel lighter too.

Remember wearing your backpack so low that it bounced against the back of your legs? This is popular with young school kids, but extremely straining on the shoulders. When it comes to backpacks, the higher and closer to your back, the better. It should never extend down past your waist and ideally should sit at least an inch above your hips. Adjust the shoulder straps tightly also to make sure the pack doesn’t sway from side to side as you walk and remains stable and steady. To do this, it’s also helpful to load the backpack correctly. Put the heaviest things in first and keep them as close to center as possible, then pack all the smaller items around the sides. This helps maintain balance.

When picking out the right backpack, pay attention to the straps to make sure they are wide enough and have enough padding, which will be more comfortable for your shoulders the longer you wear it. And if you get lucky and it comes with a chest or waist strap – wear it! It may not seem “fashionable” at first, but connecting the chest straps will help keep the shoulder straps in place and prevent chafing during extended use, and taking advantage of the waist strap will help distribute the weight to the hips giving the shoulders a little break. You’ll know your backpack is fitted right when you can run with it on without it swaying back and forth.

It’s quite typical for people (and especially kids) to stuff their backpacks to the brim with anything and everything. However, for a one day use the packs should carry no more than 10% of the user’s body weight when fully loaded. For a child, that may amount to only about 4-8 pounds and for an average 150-pound adult, around 15 pounds. For multiday trips like backpacking hikes, the weight limit is increased to 20% of body weight, but at a higher pack weight more supportive shoes and hiking poles are recommended to provide that extra support and stability.

Choosing the right backpack is the first step in preventing shoulder strain, but if you do end up with a little an ache, there are some exercises you can do to stretch and strengthen shoulder muscles and to promote better range of motion. The rotator cuff muscles stabilize the shoulder, and these are important muscles to strengthen. Stand near a wall with the elbows bent at 90 degrees with the lower arm parallel to the floor, and press the palm into the wall for at least 10 seconds. This can be repeated using the back of the hand instead of the palm. To help stabilize the shoulder blade, perform shoulder shrugs with light dumbbells in each hand or do wall pushups while standing about 18 inches from the wall.

Overloaded backpacks are a significant contributor to increased doctor’s visits, muscular stress, and chronic pain, but all can be prevented by implementing these tips and making healthy backpack habits stick. Purchase a backpack that’s right for you, take heed to the weight limits, and don’t forget to stretch! Your shoulders will thank you.