Available in all sizes, colors, and shapes, backpacks are not only a practical way for children and teenagers to organize and carry their school books and supplies, but also a way to express their personality and style. Compared to shoulder bags, tote bags, or messenger backs, backpacks are easier to carry, being supported by the strong back and abdominal muscles, and also cause less strain on the body.
However, backpacks that are too heavy or are worn incorrectly can do more harm than good, causing anything from acute muscle and joint pain to severe back pain and posture problems. Many parents are worried that their child is going to end up with back deformities and other serious disorders that will eventually require surgery. Scoliosis is often one of the most cited concerns, parents fearing that prolonged wearing of a heavy backpack load will leave their child with an abnormal curvature of their spine that will be impossible to correct.
In reality, kids’ backpacks are not likely to cause scoliosis and other long-term damage to muscle and bone, nor are they going to create a problem that will necessitate surgery. The real negative effects of lugging around their entire locker’s worth of books and personal items all day long, especially when worn incorrectly, include:
- Neck and upper back pain. Carrying a heavy load causes kids to round their upper back and lean their trunk forward. As a result, the muscles and ligaments aren’t able to hold the body up properly, and they often experience neck and shoulder pain.
- Shoulder pain. Applying a heavy load on a child’s shoulders causes the joints to get tight and muscles to tighten down, which may alter biomechanics and create potential strain.
- Sore hips. Hip pain is another result of the forward trunk lean a child creates in order to mitigate the backward pull of a heavy backpack.
- Knee pain. An overweight backpack often changes the walking pattern and posture of a child, resulting in potential knee pain.
- Back pain. Chronic mid and lower back pain are the most common results of leaning forward to compensate for the weight of the backpack.
- Injuries caused by falling. Children who carry around a heavy backpack do not have sufficient stability to balance themselves throughout the day and they may fall over, risking injuries to the wrist, arm, leg, or worse.
According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, about 14,000 children are treated for backpack-related injuries, and about 5,000 end up in the emergency room. The problem has grabbed the attention of authorities in some states, prompting lawmakers to push for legislation requiring school districts to set a maximum weight for textbooks used by elementary and middle school students. Using digital textbooks, CD-ROMs, and more internet resources to replace heavy books is also expected to become widespread and spare our kids from an unnecessary burden.
In the meantime, there are many things you can do as a parent to help prevent injury. Here’s how to choose the right backpack for your child and make sure its load isn’t too heavy for your child’s body.
Fitting Kids with the Right Backpack to Prevent Back Injury and Pain
While it’s common these days to see our kids carrying on their shoulders as much as a quarter of their weight, the American Chiropractic Association (ACA) recommends that a backpack weighs no more than 10 to 15 percent of a child’s weight. That is, a 50-pound child’s carrying capacity should be no more than 5 to 7.5 pounds, an 80-pound child’s no more than 8 to 12 pounds, and a 100-pound child’s no more than 10 to 15 pounds.
When selecting the right backpack for your child, make sure it has all the following features:
- An anatomically-correct design that supports and encourages a good posture
- Padded back and shoulder straps
- Hip and chest belts to transfer some of the load to the hip and torso areas
- Multiple pockets and compartments to ensure an even distribution of weight
- Compression straps on the bottom to stabilize the load
- Lightweight fabric
The backpack’s size should match the length of the kid’s torso, and its bottom should be about two inches above the waist. Check the American Chiropractic Association’s Backpack Safety Checklist to make sure you are selecting the best backpack for your child.
To prevent injury when using a backpack, make sure your child does the following:
- Use both shoulder straps. Hurling a backpack over one shoulder can strain the muscles in the shoulder or increase the curvature of the spine.
- Tighten the straps so that the backpack comes close to the body, leaving minimal space between it and your child’s back
- Distribute the weight evenly by using all its compartments. The heaviest items should be placed low and towards the back.
- Carry only necessary items. If possible, pack only the things required for the next class and keep the rest inside school lockers.
- Don’t bend over at the waist. If your child must bend while carrying or lifting a heavy backpack, he or she should do it by bending both knees.
As parents, always encourage your children to speak openly about any pain or discomfort they may feel during their school day caused by a heavy backpack. If your child has back pain or numbness in the arms and legs, it may be time to seek professional care. A licensed and experienced chiropractor can correct minor misalignments in your child’s spine and provide extra help for achieving a good posture. A child who is educated on the importance of spine health and posture from an early age will be able to apply the knowledge later in life and grow up as a strong and independent adult.
About the Author
Dr. Marc Browner is the Founder of iChiropractic and Wellness in Naples, Florida. A graduate of the University of Florida in 1991, he earned his Doctor of Chiropractic degree from Life Chiropractic in 1995. In private practice since 1998, Dr. Browner is a member of the Florida Chiropractic Society, the Florida Chiropractic Association, and he attends continuing education seminars, classes, and workshops to remain abreast of the most current treatment methods and technological advances in the field.