Back to School Health: Backpacks

Think back to the last time you drove your child to school. You might recall seeing mountainous backpacks trudging towards the school, being supported by tiny little legs. You had to assume that there was a person under the backpack as well, but it’s hard to tell because of the sheer size of the enormous backpacks.

Heavy backpacks have been a hot topic among parents and teachers for quite a few years now. There are concerns about children hauling excessive weight on their backs, and how that might affect their bodies. The average U.S. school year lasts around 180 days. When you consider that adolescence is a pivotal time for growth and development, and that students are wearing heavy backpacks for half of the year between the ages of 5 and 18, these concerns seem warranted.

However, it’s a subject of some debate. Some feel as though there are too many factors that affect a growing child’s back, bones, and posture to blame it solely on heavy bookbags, while others find it obvious that if a kids are wearing backpacks that are too heavy, they will develop back problems.

A study done by the Journal of Clinical Chiropractic Pediatrics found that heavy backpacks can promote back pain, and a backpack should not exceed 10-15% of a child’s body weight. This means that a child who weighs 100 pounds should not have more than 15 pounds of weight in their backpack. However, many students often carry more than 15% of their weight on their backs. Heavy textbooks are usually to blame, but some kids may also be carrying sports gear or musical instruments that add to the load.

So how can a heavy backpack lead to back problems? Excessive weight can cause a child to lean forward to compensate for the weight of a heavy backpack. This can lead to poor posture, which in some cases cause strained muscles and nerve damage in the neck.

Heavy backpacks can also pull back on the shoulders and potentially lead to stress fractures, compress the spinal column, and put extra pressure on the discs in your back. Excessive weight can also cause knee problems.

Wearing a pack over one shoulder, or packs that consistently have uneven weight distribution, can throw your back out of alignment or cause neck pain.

What can you do to help prevent back pain and back problems from wearing backpacks?

  • Make sure that you get your child a backpack that fits correctly. Packs come in different sizes, and a backpack designed for an adult won’t distribute the weight properly for a child.
  • Load your backpack properly. Try and put the heaviest items lower and centered in the backpack.
  • Wear the backpack properly. Slinging a pack over one shoulder might make you look like a cool kid from the 80’s but it can also throw you off balance and lead to back problems.
  • School children aren’t going on a month long expedition in the Mojave desert. They don’t have to carry everything they own in their backpacks. Use lockers to store text books and supplies and swap them out as needed.
  • Consolidate your school materials. Use a single binder and dividers for all subjects instead of individual binders for each class.

Parents should help make sure your child’s backpack isn’t overpacked. If they have to struggle to pick it up or change their posture to stay upright while wearing the backpack, it’s too heavy. Heavy backpacks might lead to little problems, but if those problems go unnoticed, they could become big problems in the future.