Backpacks come in all shapes and sizes. Choosing the right one, and wearing it properly, are essential for preventing unnecessary strain on a child's back and shoulders.
Backpacks come in all shapes in sizes with compartments to help students stay organized. Compared to shoulder or messenger bags or even purses, backpacks are better because the strongest muscles in the body, those in the back and abdomen, can work together to support the load.
When worn correctly, the weight of a backpack is evenly distributed across the body and neck, so shoulder and back injuries are less common than for someone who carries a purse or briefcase. As practical as they are, they can strain muscles and joints and cause back pain if they are too heavy or used incorrectly. When a heavy weight, such as a backpack filled with books, is placed incorrectly on the shoulders, the weight’s force can pull a child backward. To compensate, the child may bend forward at the hips and/or arch the back, which can cause unnatural spine compression. The heavy weight might cause some kids to develop shoulder, neck and back pain or put them at increased risk of falling. Wearing a backpack over just one shoulder may make the child lean to one side to offset the extra weight causing lower and upper back pain and shoulder and neck strain.
Improper backpacks can lead to poor posture, especially in girls and younger kids who may be smaller and carry loads that are heavier in proportion to their body weight. Equally bad, tight, narrow straps on backpacks can interfere with circulation and nerves, causing tingling, numbness and weakness in the arms and hands.
Here are some tips to help your child find the right backpack and use it correctly.
Choose an appropriate pack. Make it lightweight to not add to the load. Choose two wide straps, preferably padded as well as a padded back to increase comfort. Purchase a pack with a waist belt and multiple compartments to better distribute the weight.
Encourage your child to carry no more than 10-15 percent of their body weight in the pack at any given time. They should never haul around an entire locker’s worth of books and supplies all day. Instead, they should make frequent stops to change out at their locker. To show what 10-15 percent feels like, use the bathroom scale. (The backpack of a child who weighs 80 pounds shouldn’t weight more than 8 to 12 pounds).
Show your child how to use and pick up the backpack properly. They should use both shoulder straps, not just one since packs slung over a shoulder, across the chest or those with only one strap, won’t distribute weight as effectively as bags with two wide straps. Also, tighten the straps to keep the pack fit closely to the body. The pack should rest evenly between the middle of the back and not sag down to the buttocks. Encourage your child to pick up the backpack correctly. It’s important to bend from the knees and grab the pack with both hands when lifting onto the shoulders. Weight kept close to the body causes less strain than when lifting at arm’s length.
As a parent, you should be a backpack advocate so you can help prevent problems before they can occur.
Lesli Tuggle is a physical therapist with Willis-Knighton’s Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation Institute.