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Back to School Series: 10 Backpack Safety Tips to Prevent Aches and Pains

Authored by Dr. Colin Haines, MD, FACS. August 16, 2021

As the amount of homework students are given continues to rise, so does the number of books and supplies they are required to carry from school to home. Many parents are not aware of the dangers of selecting the wrong backpack or carrying too much weight on the back. These include an increased risk for falls as the child is forced to lean forward because of the heavy or off-balanced load, muscle strain and local irritation to the ribcage and spine, change in the natural curve of the spine, and internal rotation of the shoulders and poor posture over time. Avoid these potential health risks by referencing these useful tips and considerations on how to lighten the load in your child’s backpack. Begin the new school year strong, and avoid those aches and pains from the heavy load of your child’s backpack.

TOP 10 TIPS TO LIGHTEN THE LOAD OF YOUR CHILD’S BACKPACK:
  1. Do the math. The American Physical Therapy Association suggests that the recommended weight limit of a backpack should be 15-20% of a child’s body weight. For example, if your child weighs 50 pounds, then the backpack should be no more than 10 pounds (Make certain that the weight in the backpack does not cause your child to lean forward. This is a sign that the backpack is too heavy).
  2. Weight distribution. Once you have the correct weight in your child’s backpack make sure it is distributed evenly. Always pack heavy items at the bottom to ensure that the heaviest load is carried lower and closer to your child’s core area.
  3. Make sure the backpack has padded shoulder straps and backside. You don’t want the straps digging into their shoulder or back.
  4. Tighten Up. Always adjust the straps so that the backpack fits close to the body but be careful they are not so tight they pull on the shoulders.
  5. Use both shoulder straps. Carrying the backpack over one shoulder forces other back muscles to compensate for the uneven weight distribution, causing the spine to lean to the opposite side. With time, this muscle imbalance will cause muscle strain and back pain.  Neck muscles can also be affected, which oftentimes leads to increased neck pain and headaches.
  6. Placement. The rule of thumb is that the bottom of the backpack should be 2-3 inches above the waist, while the top of the backpack should be below the neck.
  7. Select a backpack that has compartments to ensure better organization. Better organization will allow your child to eliminate unnecessary items. But beware! Just because there are lots of pockets doesn’t mean you have to stuff them chock full with everything but the kitchen sink!
  8. Monitor the clutter. Kids tend to accumulate items in their backpacks without realizing it. Take the time to go through the contents of their backpack weekly and eliminate items that are not necessary.
  9. Safety. Place sharp or odd-shaped items in the front section of the backpack to avoid direct contact with your child’s back.
  10. Lift with the legs. Make sure your child lifts the backpack using his or her leg muscles and avoids bending the back.

*Bonus tip: invest in a wheeled backpack that allows your child to glide around his or her belongings!*

About The Author

Dr. Colin Haines, MD, FACS

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