Backpack safety in the 501

by Holly Hardy

Backpacks are a popular and practical way for children and teenagers to carry schoolbooks and supplies. They are designed to distribute the weight of the load among some of the body’s strongest muscles. When used correctly, backpacks can be a good way to carry the necessities of the school day.

Backpacks that are too heavy or are worn incorrectly can cause problems for children and teenagers. Improperly used backpacks may injure muscles and joints. This can lead to severe back, neck and shoulder pain, as well as posture problems.

As an occupational therapist and supervisor of Conway Regional Therapy Services-Greenbrier, I would like to offer the following guidelines that can help parents as they prepare for back-to-school purchases.

Look for:

Wide, padded shoulder straps — Narrow straps can dig into shoulders. This can cause pain and restrict circulation. 

Two shoulder straps — Backpacks with one shoulder strap that runs across the body cannot distribute weight evenly. 

Padded back — A padded back protects against sharp edges on objects inside the pack and increases comfort. 

Waist strap — A waist strap can distribute the weight of a heavy load more evenly. 

Lightweight backpack — The backpack itself should not add much weight to the load. 

The correct size — Never wider or longer than your child’s torso and never hanging more than 4 inches below the waist

Multiple compartments — To better distribute the weight

Reflective material

To prevent injury when using a backpack, do the following:

Always use both shoulder straps. Slinging a backpack over one shoulder can strain muscles. Wearing a backpack on one shoulder may increase curvature of the spine. 

Tighten the straps so that the pack is close to the body. The straps should hold the pack two inches above the waist. 

Pack light. The backpack should never weigh more than 10 to 20 percent of the student’s total body weight. 

Organize the backpack to use all of its compartments. Pack heavier items closest to the center of the back. 

Stop often at school lockers, if possible. Do not carry all of the books needed for the day.                                   

Parents also can help in the following ways: 

Encourage your child or teenager to tell you about pain or discomfort that may be caused by a heavy backpack. Do not ignore any back pain in a child or teenager. Ask a pediatrician or physical therapist for advice. 

Talk to the school about lightening the load. Be sure the school allows students to stop at their lockers throughout the day. Team up with other parents to encourage changes. 

Consider buying a second set of textbooks for your student to keep at home. 

Remember that your kids’ arms work, too. They can take one or two books out of their bags and carry them in their arms.

An easy way to test how much your kid’s backpack actually weighs is to place it on your bathroom scale. While it might not be exact, it’ll tell you if you’re creeping into the red zone and putting your child at risk of developing back pain.

How much weight should be in a child’s backpack?

Parents should make sure their child’s backpack does not weigh any more than 10 to 20 percent of the child’s body weight and place additional items into their child’s arms or carry them into the school themselves. So, if your child weighs 60 pounds, the backpack should weigh less than 12 pounds. The average textbook weights about 3.5 pounds.