Backpack Safety: It’s Time to Lighten the Load

According to a study published in the Journal of Pediatric Orthopedics, children and teenagers bearing excessive weight in their backpacks can develop long-lasting neck and back pain. With the back-to-school season quickly approaching, physical therapists at AthletiCare, a department of Kenmore Mercy Hospital, offered some tips to lighten the load and prevent long term orthopedic issues.

Backpacks that are too heavy can cause a lot of problems, like back and shoulder pain, and poor posture. The problem has grabbed the attention of lawmakers in some states, who have pushed for legislation requiring school districts to lighten the load.

“When a heavy weight, such as a backpack filled with books, is incorrectly placed on anyone’s shoulders, the weight’s force can pull an individual backward. To compensate, a child may bend forward at the hips or arch the back, which can cause the spine to compress unnaturally. The heavy weight might cause some children to develop shoulder, neck, and back pain,” said Joseph Baumgarden, DPT, Cert MDT, manager of AthletiCare at Kenmore Mercy Hospital.

He notes, when choosing a backpack, look for one that is appropriate for the size of your child. In addition, look for some of the following features:

  • a lightweight pack that doesn’t add a lot of weight to your child’s load (for example, even though leather packs look cool, they weigh more than traditional canvas backpacks)
  • two wide, padded shoulder straps; straps that are too narrow can dig into shoulders
  • a padded back, which not only provides increased comfort, but also protects kids from being poked by sharp edges on objects (pencils, rulers, notebooks, etc.) inside the pack
  • multiple compartments, which can help distribute the weight more evenly

To prevent injury when using a backpack, do the following:

  • Always use both shoulder straps when carrying the backpack. The correct use of both of the wide, well-padded shoulder straps will help distribute the weight of the backpack across the child’s back.
  • Tighten the straps to keep the load closer to the back.
  • Organize the items. Pack heavier things low and towards the center.
  • Pack light. Removing items if the backpack is too heavy. Carry only those items that are required for the day, and if possible, leave unnecessary books at home or school.
  • Lift properly. Bend at the knees when picking up a backpack.

Some kids have backaches because they’re lugging around their entire locker’s worth of books, school supplies, and assorted personal items all day long. But most doctors and physical therapists like Baumgarden recommends that kids carry no more than 10% to 15% of their body weight in their packs.

When worn correctly, the weight in a backpack is evenly distributed across the body, and shoulder and neck injuries are less common than if someone carried a briefcase or purse.

Although packs on wheels (which look like small, overhead luggage bags) may be good options for students who have to lug around really heavy loads, they’re extremely difficult to pull up stairs and to roll through snow. Check with the school before buying a rolling pack; many schools don’t allow them because they can pose a tripping hazard in the hallways.

It is important at any age to practice backpack safety. If you or your child has back or neck pain or numbness or weakness in the arms or legs, talk to your doctor or physical therapist.