|SSM Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center|
Many packs feature multiple compartments that help students stay organized while they tote their books and papers from home to school and back again. Compared with shoulder bags, messenger bags, or purses, backpacks are better because the strongest muscles in the body — the back and the abdominal muscles — support the weight of the packs.
When worn correctly, the weight in a backpack is evenly distributed across the body, and shoulder and neck injuries are less common than if someone carried a briefcase or purse.
As practical as backpacks are, though, they can strain muscles and joints and may cause back pain if they're too heavy or are used incorrectly. Here's how to help kids find the right backpack.
Problems Backpacks Can Pose
Although many factors can lead to back pain — increased participation in sports or exercise, poor posture while sitting, and long periods of inactivity — some kids have backaches because they're lugging around their entire locker's worth of books, school supplies, and assorted personal items all day long. But most doctors and physical therapists recommend that kids carry no more than 10% to 15% of their body weight in their packs.
To know how heavy backpacks can affect a kid's body, it helps to understand how the back works. The spine is made of 33 bones called vertebrae, and between the vertebrae are discs that act as natural shock absorbers.
When a heavy weight, such as a backpack filled with books, is incorrectly placed on the shoulders, the weight's force can pull a child backward. To compensate, a child may bend forward at the hips or arch the back, which can cause the spine to compress unnaturally. The heavy weight might cause some kids to develop shoulder, neck, and back pain.
Kids who wear their backpacks over just one shoulder — as many do, because they think it looks better or just feels easier — may end up leaning to one side to offset the extra weight. They might develop lower and upper back pain and strain their shoulders and neck.
Improper backpack use can also lead to poor posture. Girls and younger kids may be especially at risk for backpack-related injuries because they're smaller and may carry loads that are heavier in proportion to their body weight.
Also, backpacks with tight, narrow straps that dig into the shoulders can interfere with circulation and nerves. These types of straps can contribute to tingling, numbness, and weakness in the arms and hands.
And bulky or heavy backpacks don't just cause back injuries. Other safety issues to consider:
Purchasing a Safe Pack
Despite their potential problems, backpacks are an excellent tool for kids when used properly. But before you buy that trendy new backpack your kid or teen has been begging you for, consider the backpack's construction.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents look for the following when choosing the right backpack:
Although packs on wheels (which look like small, overhead luggage bags) may be good options for students who have to lug around really heavy loads, they're extremely difficult to pull up stairs and to roll through snow. Check with the school before buying a rolling pack; many schools don't allow them because they can pose a tripping hazard in the hallways.
Using Backpacks Wisely
To help kids prevent injury when using a backpack:
What Kids Can Do
A lot of the responsibility for packing lightly — and safely — rests with kids:
Being a Safe Backpack Advocate
Involving other parents and your child's school in solving students' backpack burdens might help to lessen kids' loads. Some ways the school can get involved include:
You may need to adjust kids' backpacks and/or reduce how much they carry if they:
If your child has back pain or numbness or weakness in the arms or legs, talk to your doctor or physical therapist.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD