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Getting Schooled in Backpack Safety

(Chester County Moms - September 14, 2011)

~ From the professionals at The Center of Physical Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine, a service of The Chester County Hospital and Health System.~

The kids are returning to school. You have the list of school supplies to buy, but have you given much thought to the backpack your child is wearing? Here are some tips for the safe selection and use of backpacks.

By the Numbers:
More than 7,300 emergency room visits per year nationwide are caused by backpack-related injuries. Backpack-related injuries have increased 330% since 1996.

Do the Math:
The average backpack weighs 12 pounds. Assuming that it is lifted 10 times per day equals 120 pounds. Multiply that by 180 days and that means the average student will lift 21,600 pounds in a school year. That is nearly 11 tons (or the equivalent of six full-size cars).

First, the Positives:
When worn correctly, backpacks distribute weight better and allow the back and abdominal muscles to support the weight. Backpacks should:

  • Be evenly centered in the middle of the back
  • Not be wider or longer than the child's torso
  • Not extend further than 4 inches below the waistline when loaded

Now, the Negatives:
If too heavy or worn incorrectly backpacks can injure muscles or joints and may cause neck, back, or shoulder pain.

Be Aware:
The total weight of the loaded backpack should not be more than 10%-15% of the child's body weight.

Utilize both (wide) straps over both shoulders; avoid narrow straps as they can dig into shoulders, compromising neurovascular structures that can result in numbness, tingling or weakness in the arms and/or hands. Tighten the straps so the weight is close to the body.

Packs that are too heavy or worn incorrectly can cause shifting/poor posture to compensate and may result in pain. Heavy packs can change the way kids walk and make them more susceptible to falling (particularly if the pack weighs more than 25% of their body weight).

Girls and younger children may be more at risk because they are smaller and the loads may be heavier relative to their body weight.

Backpacks with wheels can be useful, but they present their own set of challenges as they:

  • Can be up to 80% heavier than regular backpacks
  • Can be a tripping hazard in crowded hallways
  • Can make negotiating steps, curbs and stairs more difficult
  • Are not allowed in some schools

Although backpacks with two straps is preferred, if your child insists on using just one strap or the bag only has a single strap then it should be slung diagonally to distribute the load better. Alternate the direction the pack is slung to avoid overuse.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends selecting backpacks that are:

  • Lightweight (won't add significantly more weight to the carried load)
  • Have wide, padded shoulder straps
  • Has a padded back (increases comfort/protection from sharp objects)
  • Has a waist belt (helps to distribute weight more evenly)
  • Have multiple compartments (helps to distribute weight more evenly)

Encourage your kids to use their backpacks wisely:

  • Don't carry unnecessary items. (i.e. video games, cameras.
  • Use all the compartments to distribute the weight, use the compartment closest to the back for heavier items.
  • Use proper lifting techniques (i.e. bend the knees and lift with the legs, sling one arm then the other) when putting on heavy backpacks.
  • Use lockers throughout the day to lighten the load.

Parents and teachers should observe each child to look for adverse signs of risk such as:

  • Struggles to get the backpack on or off
  • Complains of back pain
  • Leans forward to carry the backpack

By observing these simple steps, the use of backpacks during the school year will hopefully be a pain free one.


Last Updated: 9/11/2012