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It is time to take a load off.

Several years have passed since we first heard warnings about the effects of heavy, incorrectly adjusted backpacks on young spines. Studies have shown that about 90% of kids worldwide carry backpacks. A child’s rapidly developing spine has the highest rate of growth between 10-12 years of age for girls and 13-15 for boys, a time when they are most susceptible to experiencing postural deformities and back injuries.

Books That Weigh You Down

In a study of American kids ages 11-15, more than 60% reported back pain related to heavy backpacks, with 21% of those children reporting pain that lasted more than 6 months! And the problem is not limited to the younger kids. A Boston University study reported that a full 85% of university students had discomfort and back pain from backpack wear.

If your teenager is complaining about low back pain, neck pain, or muscle soreness, it might just be a case of carrying too heavy a backpack. Even more serious injuries have been associated with backpack use including respiratory problems, winged scapula, foot blisters and tripping accidents.

Backpack Etiquette

A study published in the March 2014 issue of the Journal of Clinical Chiropractic Pediatrics established a recommended maximum weight of backpacks to be no more than 10-15% of total body weight. How the backpack is worn is also a factor. At one point, a study showed that nearly three-quarters of students carried the backpack on one shoulder, a practice that added additional problems, such as torquing of the spine.

Proper use and monitoring of weight can help make sure that the backpack your child wears won’t be the source of spinal problems lasting into adulthood. Organizations like Backpack Safety International are working to educate children on proper backpack wear. Here are a few guidelines from that organization:

1. Selection: Size the backpack to the child. The height of the backpack should be no more than three quarters of the length from shoulder blades to waist. Bigger is NOT better. Choose a pack that has padded shoulder straps to prevent pinching nerves in and around the shoulders and neck. Some packs have a lumbar pad that buffers the waist against the hard edge of books. Get one with a waist strap if you can because it will stabilize the load and prevent the backpack from swinging wildly, perhaps taking your child with it.

2. Pack it correctly: 10-15% of the child’s weight is the maximum. So an 85 pound child should have no more than 12 pounds of stuff in the backpack. If your child has to lean forward to handle the load, it is too heavy.

3. Lift it right: If your child lifts a 12 pound backpack just 10 times a day, over the course of 180 days of school, that child will lift 21,600 pounds, equaling 11 tons or the weight of 6 mid-sized autos every year. So here’s the right way: Bend at the knees, use both hands, and check the weight of the pack. Lift with the legs, apply one shoulder, and then the other.

4. Carry it correctly: Use both shoulder straps and the waist strap.
National School Backpack Awareness Day is September 16. It is a great reminder to keep track of just what is inside your child’s backpack. Make sure that it does not include items that are not necessary for that day. Load the heaviest pieces closest to the child’s back and try to arrange things so they will not move around. Make sure straps are snug (a waist strap helps here) and make sure that the bottom of the bag is never more than 4 inches below the waist.