Backpack Safety

By: Dale J. Buchberger, PT, DC, CSCS, DACBSP

As we head into this new school year, it’s time to start thinking about getting our kids ready to return to school. Most of the supplies kids will use at school will most likely end up in the backpack. As a result, the bag becomes overloaded and in many ways becomes a “traveling desk”. This can be a primary source of back pain. A recent study in the medical journal Spine linked increased backpack loads to back pain in children, which also involved changes to the lumbar disc height or curvature. When used properly, many of the negative effects of improper backpack use can be avoided. Backpack safety should be considered from the time of purchase. Remember that not all backpacks are made the same. Look for a backpack that has two wide shoulder straps, which are padded at the shoulder. The bag should be lightweight and have padding on the back. A waist strap is also helpful to help properly distribute loads. Some bags include wheels, allowing the user to roll the bag instead of carry it. If you choose a “wheelie” be sure that it has a telescoping handle that extends to a length to match the users height.

While backpacks started out as a functional alternative to the “book strap” of my “Little Rascals generation” they have become more of a fashion or status statement to the current generation. While proper use of a backpack may not be fashionable it is essential to preventing injuries. Although it may seem “cool” to wear the backpack on one shoulder, or hanging below the buttocks these positions only create an increased probability of back shoulder and neck pain. The bag should be worn on both shoulders to evenly distribute the weight. It should be positioned approximately 2 inches above the waist keeping the weight closer to the center of gravity and preventing a forward lean that increases stress on the back. Shoulder straps should be kept tight to keep the load close to the body. Pack the heaviest objects first, keeping them closest to the body and take only what is needed for the day. Picking what to take and what to leave can be a daunting task for today’s students as teachers overload children with homework in order to keep up with the federal governments mandate to keep up with the Chinese. According to the American Physical Therapy Association the total weight of the bag should be no more than 15-20% of the child’s body weight while the American Chiropractic Association advises 5-10%. If you have picked up your child’s book bag lately you would know that it is quite easy to exceed this number on any given day. It may sound like a cliché but the only way to ensure that school aged children are protected from over load is to improve communication between parents, teachers and administrators. At the middle school and high school levels improving communications between teachers in the same grade can help prevent over load by comparing syllabi and staggering assignments. Encourage your child to take frequent trips to and from their locker to unload the backpack throughout the day.

Because our society has become dependent on technological advances such as computers and cell phones, physical education plays a larger role in injury prevention from postural weakness. Educating kids on how to strengthen their shoulders, back and legs to withstand the chronic forces generated by over loaded back packs will help reduce posture related injuries. Posture strengthening exercises can be added to most physical education classes as a warm-up without creating a disruption. Preventing backpack injuries will take a coordinated effort of students, parents, teachers and administrators to listen to the research and make an effort to change for the benefit of the student population.

Here is a summary of tips from Dr. John Triano for safe backpack use:

  1. Always use both shoulder straps and wear the backpack on the back, not over one shoulder.
  2. Pack heaviest objects first so they are carried lower and closest to the body.
  3. Fill compartments so that the load is evenly distributed and items don’t shift during movement.
  4. Pack sharp or bulky objects so they don’t contact the back.
  5. Adjust the straps to fit snugly to the child’s body, holding the bottom of the backpack 2-inches above the waist and keeping the top just below the base of the skull; don’t carry the backpack low near the buttocks.
  6. Don’t lean forward when walking; if this is necessary, the backpack is to heavy. Following the tips listed above can help to limit repetitive strain on the shoulders, back and neck while decreasing the chance of injury. Proper use can also promote good posture, which can carry through into adulthood.