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Back Packs and Children's Health

A team of researchers at Auburn University has studied 421 students and found that backpacks carried over one shoulder promoted lateral spinal bending and shoulder elevation. Additionally, they noted carrying a heavy backpack promoted significant forward lean of head and trunk. Both of these spinal distortions can lead to accelerated degeneration or promote back pain in later years. The scientists state the average backpack represented 17% of the child's body weight. If we apply this standard to adults, it would be the equivalent of the average 150 pound adult carrying a 26-pound backpack.

This would explain why students suffer from muscle soreness, back pain, numbness, and shoulder pain. The researchers went on to conclude that the daily physical stress associated with carrying a backpack on one shoulder significantly alters the posture and gait of the youth. Doctors are of the opinion that continual exposure to carrying heavy loads can promote damage to the spine and its associated structures. This is a serious issue when considering children and youths who are experiencing physical growth and motor development.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that 7,277 emergency room visits each year result from injuries related to book bags. The CPSC also reports that backpack-related injuries are up 330% since 1996.

A study conducted by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons adds to the growing body of research on the negative impact of backpack use. Investigators surveyed more than 100 physicians at Children's Memorial Hospital, Chicago, Illinois and Alfred I. DuPont Hospital for Children, Wilmington, Delaware. The study revealed that backpack injuries are on the rise. In total, 58% of the orthopedists reported seeing patients complaining of back and shoulder pain caused by heavy backpacks. More than 70% of the orthopedists surveyed indicated that heavy backpacks can become a clinical problem in school-age children if not enough attention is made to decrease some of the weight being carried in the packs. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons – October 18, 1999.

Back Pack Safety Tips 

  • Make sure the backpack is sturdy and appropriately sized. Some manufacturers offer special child-sized versions for children ages 5-10. These packs weigh less than a pound and have shorter back lengths and widths so they do not slip around on the back.
  • Consider more than looks when choosing a backpack. An ill-fitting pack can cause back pain, muscle strain, or nerve impingement. You want to have padded shoulder straps to avoid pressure on the nerves around the armpits and collarbone. Some backpacks have waist straps or a lumbar support designed to stabilize the load. These should be used whenever possible.
  • Avoid using backpacks or athletic bags that have only one strap. Ensure that children wear both straps on their shoulders to distribute weight evenly and that the straps are pulled up to center the load in the middle of the back, not hanging below the waist. This will significantly reduce book bag carrying stresses.
  • The proper maximum weight for loaded backpacks should not exceed 15% of the child's body weight. For example, an 80-pound child should not carry more than 12 pounds in a pack. If the pack forces the carrier to bend forward, it is overloaded. This is especially important for children in grades 1-4.
  • In loading, it is obvious that excessive backpack weight can cause problems. Prioritizing the pack's content is very important. Avoid loading unnecessary items. It is important to balance the weight of the contents or the body shifts into unnatural postures to compensate.
  • Often ignored is the act of lifting and positioning the pack. Lifting 20 pounds improperly can cause damage.
  • Have your child examined regularly by a chiropractor so that any potential spinal, or postural, problems can be addressed and corrected.

It is important to remember that children and adolescent youths need backpack limitations that are sensitive to their age, weight, stage of spinal development, growth pattern and fitness level. Only by exercising prudent care can we safeguard our children's health.


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