Backpacks, once used primarily by hikers and campers, have become an integral part of every student’s daily school routine. Kids load them with books, notebooks, papers, pens and pencils, sling them over their back and head out the door. Backpacks offer one of the simplest ways to stay organized while toting around a mammoth amount of school paraphernalia.
As students get older, their backpacks start getting heavier. Not only are kids carrying books, but many are also stuffing athletic gear, laptops and even band instruments into their backpack. The additional weight is causing some children to seek treatment for shoulder, neck, and back pain.
More than 24,000 people were treated in U.S. hospitals and doctors' offices for backpack-related injuries in 2012, and more than 9,500 of those patients were aged 5 to 18, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Backpacks are considered a better option than messenger bags because they allow the weight to be distributed evenly across the body using the strongest muscle group. However, when backpacks are overloaded even the stronger muscles can become strained or injured as well as the spine. When you put a heavy weight on your shoulders in the wrong way, the weight's force can pull you backward. To compensate, you may bend forward at the hips or arch your back. This can cause your child’s spine to compress unnaturally.
Many kids sling their backpack over one shoulder and end up leaning too much to one side to offset the weight. Repeated use on one side of the body can develop lower and upper back pain and strain in the shoulder and neck.
How much weight is too much for kids to be toting around? The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recommends that children carry no more than 15 percent to 20 percent of their body weight.
If you go with the more conservative 15 % of backpack weight, the ratio of backpack weight to child’s weight is:
Child’s weight Backpack weight
50 pounds 7.5 pounds
75 pounds 11 pounds
100 pounds 15 pounds
125 pounds 18.5 pounds
150 pounds 22.5 pounds
170 pounds 25.5 pounds
What can you do to make your child’s backpack works for and not against him or her?
- Make sure that the backpack is well-constructed and light weight. The backpack should have 2 padded straps – the wider the better. There should also be lots of additional compartments to help distribute the weight. Check the stitching to make there are no loose threads and that zippers are strong enough to hold with repeated use. The back should be padded and there should be a waist strap.
- Make sure it is the right size for your child. If the pack bumps against your child’s lower back or butt when they walk, the straps are probably too long. Always pack the backpack with the heaviest items closest to the back. Check to make sure that all the contents aren’t crammed into the main compartment - using the side pockets will distribute the weight more evenly.
- Remind your child to use his or her locker for extra storage. Remind them that there’s no need to carry everything with them all day long. If they don’t need something till the afternoon, why carry it around all morning?
- Watch how your child handles the backpack. If you see that he or she has difficulty getting the pack on and off, it’s probably too heavy. If their backpack is bulging out the back and sides- they probably have way too much stuff in it. Lighten the load.
- Weigh your child’s backpack. A home scale may not be exactly accurate, but it’s close enough. Every once in awhile check to see how much weight is in your child’s backpack. Using the backpack can become such an every day routine that your child may not think about the weight or how much stuff they are putting in it until they have to struggle to even lift it.
Don’t ignore your child’s complaints about a sore neck or back. Symptoms that your child’s backpack may be causing health problems are numbness, tingling or discomfort in the arms or legs. If your child has back pain that does not improve, you may want to consider buying a second set of textbooks to keep at home.
If your child's pain is severe or continues after adjusting the backpack load, seek medical attention to make sure that there isn't something else going on.
Sources: http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00043, http://kidshealth.org/teen/school_jobs/school/backpack.html#