Kids everywhere are heading back to class this fall with their own unique sense of fashion on display. Whether your student sports a message tee, cargo shorts or a school uniform, one accessory they’re sure to have is a backpack—soon to be overflowing with everything they consider essential
(like snacks and headphones). For over 90 percent of the world’s schoolchildren, backpacks are a school day staple. But many health professionals are concerned about the injuries they can cause. According to Dr. Andrew Casden, M.D., orthopedic surgeon and associate director of Beth Israel’s Spine Institute in New York, overloaded backpacks can cause posture problems, back and shoulder pain, fatigue, muscle irritation and tiny muscle tears.
Why is backpack safety important?
Pack injuries are no walk in the park; repetitive stress injuries caused by backpack misuse can result in costly doctor visits, even missed school. Backpack Safety America reports 89 percent of chiropractors have seen children for backpack-related pain.
Researchers say many kids carry packs that are too heavy, but that’s only part of the problem. How a backpack is worn is just as important
as its weight, says Henry Chambers, M.D., of Rady Children’s Hospital San Diego.
Family physician Dr. Darin Charles, M.D., of Methodist Mansfield Medical Center recommends backpack weight should not exceed 20 percent
of the student’s body weight. That means 12 pounds is the maximum pack weight for a 60-pound child. Leaning forward while wearing the pack or struggling to take it off are signs your child’s backpack is probably too heavy.
Pack weight isn’t the only factor in back pain; backpack position is also important. Backpacks should be worn above the hips, researchers say, with maximum contact between the upper body and the pack.
“The optimal position for wearing a backpack is high on the upper-back, with straps over both shoulders,” says Alan Hargens, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at the UC San Diego School of Medicine. “Kids who wear their backpacks in the more stylish lower back position, or only use one strap, may suffer shoulder pain and posture problems.”
Look for a pack with wide, padded shoulder straps to help with weight distribution.
Waist and chest straps are an added bonus, because they can help distribute the weight load (as long as your child actually uses them!).
Is extra cargo dragging down their backpack? According to researchers, kids often carry unnecessary items that add to the pack’s weight, like laptops and music players. Even excess paper can add up to an overburdened bag. Do periodic pack clean-outs to cut the excess.
Peek inside the hallways of many of today’s schools and you’ll probably see a few backpacks on wheels. When large textbooks or laptops are a daily necessity, wheeled backpacks allow kids to tote heavy loads without straining their backs.
Changing kids’ backpack habits can be tough, requiring effort and encouragement from parents as well as cooperation from teachers and school staff. Ultimately, most parents can’t dictate what kids will and won’t carry in their overstuffed packs. But parents can encourage healthy backpack habits, and prepare kids for a school year that’s successful and pain-free.
Malia Jacobson is a freelance writer and mom who writes frequently about kids’ health issues.