Backpack Safety

Since opening my practice in 1992, I have made it an ongoing effort to educate parents and children of the safety concerns related to carrying heavy backpacks. The bottom line:  the ligaments, muscles and bones of young children are not developed enough to carry the awkward weight of a heavy backpack.   Backpacks are a leading cause of neck, back and shoulder pain for millions of children and adolescents.  Research published in the Journal of Pediatric Orthopedics, found that students carrying excessive weight in their backpacks may develop long-term back pain and other serious health conditions including numbness of the shoulder, muscle spasms and posture deterioration.  In my years in practice, I have found heavy backpacks to cause numbness of the arms (nerve damage), exagerated forward head postures, thoracic kyphosis (hunchbacks) and the beginning of spinal curvatures (scoliosis).  

Here is what I have shared with the parents and children in my practice:

  • Choose the correct-sized backpack   The backpack should never be wider or longer than your child's torso and the pack should not hang more than 4 inches below the waistline.  A backpack that hangs too low increases the weight on the shoulders, causing your child to lean forward when walking.
  • Backpacks should have two wide, padded shoulder straps  Non padded and narrow straps dig into the shoulders causing pain along with placing unnecessary pressure on the more easily injured neck and shoulder muscles.  The straps should also be adjustable so that you are able to make the backpack rest on the strongest part of the back. The backpack should be evenly centered in the middle of your child's back.
  • Use both straps   Lugging a heavy backpack by one strap can cause a disproportionate shift of weight to one side leading to neck and muscle spasms, low back pain, poor posture and spinal curvatures.  Weight should always be distributed evenly across the back.  
  • Choose backpacks with padded backs  A padded back not only provides comfort by relieving the strain of carrying heavy materials but also protects your child's back from being poked by sharp edges on school supplies (pencils, rulers, notebooks, scissors, etc) inside the pack.
  • Choose lightweight backpacks with lots of compartments  Backpacks that are heavy when nothing is in them do nothing but add unnecessary weight to the back.  Multiple compartments help distribute the weight of books and supplies more evenly and allow sharp, pointy objects to be packed away from the area that will rest on your child's back.  Always try to place the heaviest items closest to the body.
  • Help children pack their backpacks properly   According to the latest research, to significantly decrease a child's risk of spinal and nerve injuries, children should never carry more than 10% of their body weight in a backpack.  For example, a child who weighs 100 pounds should not carry a backpack heavier than 10 pounds, and a 50 pound child should not carry more than 5 pounds.
  • Use a locker  The more time that books and supplies are in a locker, the less time on your child's back.  Also, although potentially expensive, a dual set of books for home and and school will solve excessive backpack weight.
  • Don't wait until the last minute  Make sure your child is not waiting until the last minute to pack a backpack.  Use thoughtful planning and take your time.  Also, make sure your child is not waiting until the weekend to do homework.  When children wait until the end of the week to bring their work home, they are most likely to be carrying every schoolbook, significantly increasing the weight of the backpack.  Encouraging children to do homework throughout the week means multiple (but lighter) loads being carried to and from school daily.
  • Receive frequent chiropractic checkups  I have always shared the analogy with parents, "As the twig is bent, so grows the tree."  Proper spinal alignment is essential for developing children.  If spinal misalignments (subluxation) are detected early, future problems are easily avoided with safe, gentle chiropractic adjustments.