By Natalie Frei, PT, DPT, Children’s Therapy
One thing that is always on the back to school list is a backpack to carry pens, pencils, paper and BOOKS – lots of heavy books! A backpack that is too heavy can cause neck, shoulder, and back pain, as well as postural problems in adolescents.* Backpacks can weigh up to 40 pounds and many times do not have the appropriate hip and chest belts to redistribute the weight. A correctly sized backpack should be no wider or longer than your child’s torso and should not hang more than four inches below the waist. Additionally, doctors and physical and occupational therapists recommend that kids carry no more than 10 to 15 percent of their body weight in their packs – for example a 75 pound child should only carry about 11 pounds total!
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.
- A crossbody bag can also be a good alternative for carrying books and supplies.
- 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 by bending at the knees when picking up a backpack.
Parents also can help!
- Encourage your child or teenager to tell you about numbness, tingling, or discomfort in the arms or legs which may indicate poor backpack fit or too much weight being carried.
- Watch your child put on or take off the backpack to see if it is a struggle. If the backpack seems too heavy for the child, have them remove some of the books and carry them in their arms to ease load on the back.
- Do not ignore any back pain in a child or teenager.
- Talk to the school about lightening the load. Team up with other parents to encourage changes.
- Encourage your child to stop at his or her locker when time permits throughout the day to drop off or exchange heavier books.
- If your child has back pain that does not improve, consider buying a second set of textbooks to keep at home.
American Occupational Therapy Association – Backpack Strategies for Parents and Students
OrthoInfo – Backpack Safety
Pediatric Orthopaedic Society of North America – Backpack Safety
KidsHealth.org – Backpack Safety
*Although backpacks are linked to posture problems, heavy backpacks do not cause scoliosis. Scoliosis is a sideways curve of the spine that often shows up in children during adolescence.