Back to school: Backpack awareness

How heavy is your child’s backpack?

By Joseph M. Harris, PT, ATC, CEAS - President/Clinical Director - Physical Therapy Solutions, PSC

Joseph M. Harris

Have you ever tried to lift your child’s school backpack and wondered how they can carry that weight around school and to and from school each day? A common question we get in our office when we care for children with back pain is in regards to their backpack. According to a study by Shelly Goodgold, PT, 55 percent of children surveyed carried a backpack heavier than 15 percent of their body weight, the maximum weight that is recommended as safe by most experts.

A heavy backpack can cause back pain, shoulder pain, and neck pain. It can cause children to change their postures to carry the load. This could be particularly detrimental to a child’s musculoskeletal system when it is more vulnerable during these growing years. Heavy backpacks cause poor spinal alignment and causes the muscles to have to work harder which leads to muscle strain and fatigue. Heavy backpacks can also cause additional strain on the shoulders and neck.

Postural changes can occur when the backpack is more than 10 percent of the child’s body weight. According to most experts, children should not carry a backpack that weighs more than 15 percent of their body weight. If a backpack is worn correctly and is the proper weight, it is supported by very strong muscles in the back and abdomen, which help to stabilize the trunk and hold the body in proper alignment.

The 15 percent rule is a general rule, and some children may not be strong enough to manage even that much weight. Parents should recognize warning signs that their child’s backpack is too heavy. If your child’s posture changes when wearing a back pack, or if your child struggles in putting the backpack on or taking it off, it is likely too heavy for him or her. Also look for red marks around the child’s shoulders or numbness or tingling in his or her arms. And, if your child is having pain in their shoulders, neck or back while wearing a backpack, it is likely too heavy for your child.

Some tips in safely wearing a backpack include wearing both straps to distribute the weight evenly. Also allow the backpack to rest evenly over the middle of the back. These muscles in the mid-back are the strongest muscles with which to carry a backpack. Be sure the straps aren’t so loose that they allow the backpack to rest too low on the back. Also, lighten the load. Be sure your child is not carrying extra papers or books in his or her backpack. Each night remove items that are no longer needed at school and organize the backpack such as the heaviest items are placed closest to the child’s back.

When choosing a backpack, keep the following in mind. Wide, padded straps help to reduce pressure on the shoulders and back. Hip and chest belts help to transfer some of the weight from the shoulders to the hip and torso. A backpack with multiple compartments allows you to better distribute weight in the backpack and keeps items more secure. Also compression straps help to stabilize and secure items and keep the load close to the child’s back. Reflective material on the backpack will make the child easier to see for drivers, particularly in the evening and at night. If you choose a backpack with wheels, be sure the handle is long enough so that your child does not have to twist and bend. And be sure the wheels are large enough to allow the backpack to maintain good balance when rolling.

Physical therapists can assess a person’s posture and risks of back problems as well as design appropriate treatment plans when a person is experiencing back pain. If you or your child is having back pain, consult your doctor or physical therapist.

Joseph M. Harris M. Harris
How heavy is your child’s backpack?

By Joseph M. Harris, PT, ATC, CEAS

President/Clinical Director

Physical Therapy Solutions, PSC

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