If you ride a bike and commute daily with a backpack, here’s two general rules to help alleviate some of the neck and upper back pain that’s common while carrying a load on your back:
1) A wider strap placement on the shoulders is much better than closer to the neck.
By spreading the load, it’s less irritating to your neck muscles, nerves, and upper ribs. The closer the straps are to the neck, essentially the greater the workload for the upper trapezius and levator scapulae, which can then lead to neck pain, burning, and headaches. Just widening the distance between the shoulder 1-2” (2-5cm) can make a positive difference in most cases. For messenger bags, wear the strap out towards the point of your shoulder, away from your neck.
2) Wear the backpack lower on your back –especially with heavier loads.
This is easily accomplished by loosening the shoulder straps a bit, until the bulk (of the load inside) is closer to your lower back (roughly below the shoulder blades when flexed forward over your bike, hands on handlebars) as your bag’s straps will allow. The goal is to have the load pulling you more down and back on your shoulders, which also aids in opening the chest and improves upper thoracic extension. This leads to a better general commuting posture on the bike.
Try it out on your bike commute home this evening!
—Kevin Schmidt, PT, MSPT, CMP, Bike PT, founder/owner of Pedal PT, a full-service Physical Therapy office in Portland, Oregon with a specialty in Bike Fitting and cycling injuries.