School Backpacks Should NOT Mean Back PAIN

Backpacks caused back pain has become quite a hot topic over the last decade or so.  Almost all kids where backpacks to school, and back pain has consequently increased in school-aged children.  Studies have reported that up to 64% of children suffer from back pain (Negrini, 1999), and John Hopkins Children Center (as well as other facilities)  have shown that backpacks cause back and shoulder pain and poor posture in children.

Carrying a backpack too low or with too much weight can cause shoulder and neck problems

The BIG Question: “How much weight should be in there?”

  Most studies come to the consensus that the backpack contain no more than 10-15% of the childs/students weight.  For a 40 lb. kindergartener, that would amount to between 4 and 6 lbs.  For a 120 lb. high schooler, it’s between 12 and 18 lbs. Keep in mind the physique of the child as well…the taller and thinner should be on the low end of the scale, where shorter and stockier can go higher.  This has everything to do with leverage in developing bodies.  When a tall, thin 12-year old, 75 lb. girl is carrying 10 lbs in a backpack, it’s much different than a more muscular and shorter 75 lb. 12 year old girl.  A good example would be trying to walk and maintain holding a 12 lb. bowling ball overhead, compared to holding it at your shoulder height. You’re more stable with the weight lower in the backpack and closer to your body’s center of gravity. There are typically waist straps on most packs, and using them will allow for the pack’s weight to transfer to the hips and waist and off of the shoulders and thorax.

I’ve heard of parents telling me that their 85 lb. daughter is carrying 35 – 40 lbs. of stuff in her backpack, EVERY DAY!!  That’s the kind of thing that will keep students in pain, and me VERY busy for the rest of my career. (Remember, pain reduces one’s ability to concentrate…in students, that leads to poor grades. If your child is complaining of back or neck pain from wearing a backpack, pay attention or their grades may unknowingly suffer.

Backpacks should carry no more than 15% of the child’s weight.

So, here are some helpful tips for back pain caused by backpacks. Follow these tips and your child will be in the minority of those using back packs and suffering because of it:

  • Weight distribution is a concern – try to evenly distribute the weight in the pack and also to compartmentalize as much as you can.
  • Remember, no more than 10 – 15% of the child’s weight in the backpack…that’s the maximum!
  • Carrying it on both shoulders and not just hanging over one side.  That kind of uneven distribution is a problem just waiting to happen. Wear it properly, and that means over BOTH shoulders.
  • Get backpacks with wider, padded shoulder straps as well as back padding.
  • Pack heavier things at the base, and pack flatter things toward the spine.
  • ** The backpack should NOT be bigger than the child’s back.  Although this seems obvious, the bigger the pack, the more stuff gets put in it – increasing the chance of overloading and injury.
  • Laptops are rarely over 3 lbs. and are replacing some books and assignments, but not all. If multiple assignments are computer based it will make it easier to carry one laptop as opposed to 3 textbooks.
  • Whenever possible, have an extra set of books in the classroom and another set at home if it’s allowed (this also gives the student NO excuse for leaving a book at school!! ….Shhhhh!!)
Proper positioning, weight and distribution will cause less pain and discomfort.

Something else to implement with kids carrying a backpack doesn’t have to do with the pack directly, but with exercising the extensor muscles of the back as well as the muscles in between the shoulder blades.  Backpacks promote a forward lean in both standing and walking phases and this tends to force the student to round their shoulders and assume a mild ‘walking slouch’, in order to keep their weight in-between their feet. Implementing rowing exercises and prone arm-leg raises can help keep your child from years worth of horrible posture. These exercises will improve back pain caused by back packs.

Something else to consider is having different backpacks for different uses… keep the sports gear in a different pack in their locker until needed, and not have to carry it around. Remember, structure fits function here…if the pack fits, wear it – but don’t overdo it and do it RIGHT!!!