One in three children complain of back pain that requires a visit to the doctor, missed school or limited physical activities due to heavy backpacks.

Backpacks 101: Fitting and safety precautions

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The new school year is upon us, which means that many parents and students have already started their back-to-school shopping. In addition to the all important decision of what clothes to buy, one is also faced with the important decision of which backpack to buy.

It is an important decision because, according to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), as many as 55 percent of students carry a load that is too heavy and 1/3 of children complain of back pain that requires a visit to the doctor, missed school or limited physical activities. The following are some helpful hints with regards to the selection and correct use of a backpack:

  • It is recommended that that the load in the backpack not exceed 10-15 percent of your child’s weight. Therefore, a 100-pound student should not carry a back pack weighing more than 10-15 pounds. The heaviest items should always be placed closest to the student’s back to diminish stress on the lumbar spine. A backpack with multiple compartments is encouraged because it will help to distribute the load of the backpack.
  • Never more than 4 below: A backpack should never hang more than 4 inches below the waist of a student. A waist belt may help distribute the weight of the backpack to the hips. Some backpacks have a padded back to reduce pressure on the back.
  • Wear both straps! How many times do you see a student leaning like the Leaning Tower of Pisa to adjust for a backpack being worn over one shoulder. This can create long-term problems with regards to low-back pain. In addition to using both shoulder straps, the straps should be wide, adjustable and well padded.
  • Buy a new set of wheels: If your child's school allows it, consider buying a backpack with wheels. This will help eliminate the issues with a backpack that is too heavy.

In addition to proper selection and use of a backpack, it is important to know the signs of injury from an overweight backpack. These include:

  1. Red marks on the shoulder
  2. Pain when wearing the backpack
  3. Tingling or numbness in the arms and/or hands

If your child complains of any of these symptoms, it is time to seek out the advice of your pediatrician. A consultation with a physical therapist may also be beneficial. A physical therapist is a highly skilled clinician who is trained to assess for postural deficits and recommend treatment. Visit to learn more about our therapy services.