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Back-to-School: Backpacks and Injury Prevention


It’s back-to-school time for many of our children. As parents, we are responsible for getting them ready for school – the proper immunizations, clothing, school supplies and backpacks to carry them in. While backpacks may seem as benign as pencil cases, they can be insidiously harmful to our youth if they are too heavy and/or not carried correctly.

Each year, more than 13,000 youth in the U.S. are treated for strains, sprains, fractures, and dislocations from backpacks that are too heavy or not carried appropriately, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Kids often carry backpacks that weigh as much as a quarter of their body weight, when, in fact, they should carry backpacks and bags that weigh no more than 10% of their weight. In addition to carrying backpacks that are too heavy, kids often do not carry them correctly.

To educate the public on the importance of backpack safety, September 20th has been designated as National School Backpack Awareness Day by the American Occupational Therapy Association. The Association is encouraging students, parents, educators, school administrators, and community members to learn safety tips to stay protected from back pain. Local events will be held throughout the country that teach how to properly choose, pack, lift and carry backpacks and book bags.

“Since at least 1998, we’ve noticed backpacks getting bigger and heavier, and not in proportion to the kids’ sizes,” says Dr. Karen Jacobs, a clinical professor at Boston University and spokesperson for the American Occupational Therapy Association. Jacobs says crowded schools and scant locker space appear to be driving the phenomenon.

“Kids are saying 'My back hurts, my neck and my shoulders hurt,'” Jacobs says. “A heavy backpack can also contribute to headaches and problems concentrating at school.”

If you are purchasing a backpack for your child, you should consider the following:

  • The correct size (a pack should not be wider or longer than your child's torso and never hanging more than 4 inches below the waist);
  • Padded shoulder and back straps;
  • Chest and hip belts to help transfer some of the weight to the hips and torso
  • Multiple compartments to help distribute the weight;
  • Compression straps on the sides or bottom to stabilize the contents;
  • Reflective material.

While a roomy backpack may seem like a good idea, if there is a lot of space to fill, your child will likely fill it.

Check your child why he/she is wearing their backpack:

  • Make sure your child uses both straps. Using one strap shifts the weight to one side and causes muscle pain and posture problems.
  • Watch your child to see if they struggle when putting on or taking off the backpack. If the backpack seems too heavy for the child, remove some of the books, leave them home or have your child carry extra books in their arms to ease the load on their back.
  • Positioning the heaviest items in the middle of the pack and close to your child’s back.
  • If your child has time, encourage him/her to stop at their locker throughout the day to drop off or exchange heavier books.

Encourage your child or teenager to tell you about numbness, tingling, or discomfort in the arms or legs, which may indicate poor backpack fit or too much weight being carried. And do not ignore any back pain your child might mention.

A note about rolling backpacks on wheels: While they are becoming more common, they should be used on a limited basis and only by those students who are not physically able to carry a backpack. This is because they can cause tripping hazards in the halls of schools.