While backpacks are a convenient way to carry books and school supplies, an overloaded and/or improperly worn backpack can cause problems, such as pain in the neck or back and promote bad posture, according to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA).
Students wearing backpacks improperly or ones that are too heavy are at an increased risk for spinal injury.* Injury can occur when a child, in trying to adapt to a heavy load, uses faulty postures such as arching the back, bending forward, or leaning to one side. These postural adaptations can cause improper spinal alignment, which hampers the functioning of the discs that provide shock absorption. A backpack load that is too heavy also causes muscles and soft tissues to work harder, leading to strain and fatigue. This leaves the neck, shoulders, and back more vulnerable to injury.
Tips for safe use
- Wear both straps. Choose a backpack with wide padded straps, and wear properly on both shoulders, to evenly distribute the weight and take pressure off the shoulders and collarbone.
- Remove and put on backpacks carefully. Keep the trunk of your body stable and avoid excessive twisting. Bend your knees when lifting a heavy load instead of leaning over.
- Wear the backpack over the strongest mid-back muscles. Pay close attention to the way the backpack is positioned. It should rest evenly in the middle of the back. Shoulder straps should be adjusted to allow the child to put on and take off the backpack without difficulty and permit free movement of the arms. Straps should not be too loose, and the backpack should not extend below the low back.
- Lighten the load. Keep the load at 10-15% or less of the student’s body weight. Carry only those items that are required for the day. Each night remove articles that can be left at home. Organize the contents of the backpack by placing the heaviest items closest to the back to reduce forces that cause postural malalignment and overwork muscles. If unable to reduce the load, consider a backpack with wheels or waist strap and encourage the use of a locker throughout the day.
Warning signs that the backpack is too heavy
- Change in posture when wearing the backpack
- Struggling when putting on or taking off the backpack
- Pain when wearing the backpack
- Tingling or numbness in arms and legs (mostly arms)
- Red marks on the shoulders
We hope these tips will “lighten the load” for your child this school year!
Sadie Conrad, DPT, Clinic Director, is a Physical Therapist at Unified Therapy Services. Sadie diagnoses and treats patients of all ages who have injuries, disabilities, or other health conditions, and develops a treatment plan to improve their ability to move, reduce or manage pain, restore function, and prevent disability.
*This theory was confirmed in a study conducted by Mary Ann Wilmarth, PT, DPT, MS, OCS, director of the Transitional Doctor of Physical Therapy degree at Northeastern University in Boston. Wilmarth conducted the study at a private, pre-kindergarten through 9th-grade school in Andover, Massachusetts.
Sources: American Physical Therapy Association and clevelandclinic.org