The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates more than 7,300 injuries a year are backpack-related.
Children’s National Health System’s Division Chief of Orthopaedic Surgery and Sports Medicine, Matthew Oetgen, MD, said about 30 percent of his patients complain about back pain caused by heavy backpacks every year.
“It’s a weird endemic issue that kids face; they carry all their books with them all the time,” Dr. Oetgen said. “Similar to lifting weights or when you run after you haven’t for a long time, your muscles hurt the next day, and it’s the same for kids. They’re doing this long, moderately intense exercise for the whole day. Muscles have no time to rest, and so, they get back pain.”
Dr. Oetgen said while there are no studies showing that carrying a heavy backpack causes structural deformity to the back, kids with chronic back pain are predisposed to becoming adults with chronic back pain.
The National Safety Council, founded in 1913 by Congress to build awareness, training, and share best practices on safety issues, has developed the following warning signs that a backpack is too heavy:
- Change in posture when wearing a backpack
- Struggling when putting on or taking off the backpack
- Tingling or numbness
- Red marks
A child’s backpack should not weigh more than 10 to 20 percent of the child’s body weight, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Dr. Oetgen added that younger children and girls seem more susceptible to backpack-related pain, so parents may want lean more towards 10 percent.
“Just ask the kids if the backpack feels too heavy. Sometimes even 15 percent of the child’s body weight is too heavy for a child, and you may need to decrease the weight even more,” he said.
Dr. Oetgen also suggests children use a locker, if that option is available. Parents can also talk to their child’s teacher and ask how they can help lighten the workload.
The AAP provides some more tips to prevent back pain and injury from backpacks:
- Always use both shoulder straps. Slinging a backpack over one shoulder can strain muscles. Wearing a backpack on one shoulder may increase curvature of the spine.
- Tighten the straps so that the pack is close to the body. The straps should hold the pack two inches above the waist.
- Organize the backpack to use all of its compartments. Pack heavier items closest to the center of the back.
- Bend using both knees when you bend down. Do not bend over at the waist when wearing or lifting a heavy backpack.
Back pain among children and adolescents is very common, but if lightening the load and back exercises are not working, it may be time to see an orthopaedic specialist.