Most children use carry a backpack to school, as using a suitcase is no longer the standard and backpacks are more trendy, convenient and easier to carry. But have you ever checked how much your child’s backpack weighs?

Most doctors and physical therapists recommend that this is no more than 10% to 15% of their body weight. Is this possible these days, with all the books and extras needed? Sadly, even in this digital era, when at least some schoolwork can be done online, there has been no apparent decrease in the weight carried by children.

Heavy backpacks don’t just sap children of energy that might be better used doing schoolwork or playing sports. A heavy backpack can negatively affect a child’s growing body. You may need to make some adjustments after reading this article!

Medical Opinion Dr Jeffrey Larson, a neurosurgeon at Kootenai Medical Centre in Australia, said children with heavy, cumbersome backpacks are at risk of injuring their developing bone structure. “When children are growing, their bones aren’t solid,” Larson said. “And when there’s undue pressure on them, especially when backpacks are pulling backward, it can cause detrimental effects.”

Heavy backpack and school booksDr. Pierre D’Hemecourt, a sports medicine specialist at Children’s Hospital Boston and confirmed by The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), notes that common injuries resulting from carrying a heavy backpack include:

  • Tightening of muscles and joints
  • General back and neck strain
  • Hips can become sore
  • Possible knee pain due to a change in walking style
  • Inflammation of growth cartilage.

Only in severe and rare cases do nerve damage in the neck and shoulders, as well as stress fractures in the back occur. A spokesperson from the AAOS stressed that backpacks will not cause scoliosis.

What actually happens when a heavy backpack is worn?

The spine is made of 33 bones called vertebrae and between the vertebrae are discs that act as natural shock absorbers. When a heavy weight, such as a backpack filled with heavy books or just too many items, is incorrectly placed on the shoulders, the weight’s force can pull a child backwards. To compensate, a child may bend forward at the hips or arch the back, which can cause the spine to compress the discs unnaturally.

a heavy backpack will cause a child to drag it, making posture worse

Injury, pain and strain

Children often adopt the habit of carrying their school bags over one shoulder, as they think it looks better and feels easier. By doing this, they increase the likelihood of developing lower and upper back pain, as well as straining their neck and shoulders. Habitually carrying backpacks over one shoulder will make muscles strain to compensate for the uneven weight. The spine leans to the opposite side, stressing the mid-back, ribs, and lower back more on one side than the other. This type of muscle imbalance can cause muscle strain, muscle spasm, and back pain in the short term and speed the development of back problems later in life if not corrected. Improper backpack use can also lead to poor posture and rounded shoulders. Girls and younger kids may be especially at risk for backpack-related injuries because they’re generally smaller and may carry loads that are heavier in proportion to their body weight. Heavy packs distort the natural curves of the spine, causing muscle strain and irritation to the spine joints and the rib cage.

What to consider when buying a backpack

Do remember that backpacks with tight, narrow straps that dig into the shoulders can interfere with circulation and nerves. These types of straps can contribute to tingling, numbness, and weakness in the arms and hands.

Posture is affected by a heavy backpackLook for a backpack with:

  • Two wide, padded, adjustable shoulder straps (backpacks with one shoulder strap that runs across the body cannot distribute weight evenly). When fitting on your child, adjust the shoulder straps so that the bottom of the pack, when filled, lands no lower than 10cm below the waist.
  • Select a backpack that is no bigger than absolutely necessary — the more room in the pack, the more the child is likely to carry.
  • A padded back and compartments within so that the heaviest items can rest against the child’s back.
  • A waist strap would be ideal, but it is doubtful whether many children would use it.
  • Although a wheelie bag is considered a good option when looking to buy a school bag, it has its own set of complications. It results in twisting of the upper body when pulling the bag, thus it is advised to roll the bag next to the body or push it in front of the body.

Other considerations

Back injuries aside, other issues to consider are:

  1. Kids who carry large packs often aren’t aware of how much space the packs take up and can hit others with their packs when turning around or moving through tight spaces, such as the aisles in the classroom.
  2. Carrying a heavy pack changes the way children walk and increases the risk of falling, particularly on stairs or other places where the backpack puts the learner off balance.
  3. Encourage your child to pack smarter and eliminate unnecessary items.
  4. Listen to your children and be aware if they complain of pain. Symptoms could include grunting when putting on or taking off the backpack, red marks on shoulders from the straps, or complaints that shoulders, arms or fingers are “falling asleep”.

Remember you can always take your child to see a physiotherapist for an assessment. Complete this easy appointment form to book a session at your nearest Practice.