Backpack safety is an important topic for both children and teenagers alike. Backpacks are designed to evenly distribute weight across the body when worn properly. Unfortunately, when used incorrectly, backpacks can cause injury to the back, shoulders and neck.
A common misconception is that heavy backpacks cause scoliosis (a curvature of the spine). While a heavy or misused backpack is not the cause of scoliosis, it can result in muscular strain, joint injury and postural problems.
A child carrying a heavy backpack (even when properly worn) will have increased weight displaced behind their center of mass, which may cause them to be pulled backward. When this weight is pulling back on them the child will compensate by bending forward at the hips or by arching the back. This forward bent posture can cause the spine to be compressed, which can result in back, shoulder or neck pain. It is recommended that a child’s backpack should not weigh more than 10-15% of their total body weight.
Wearing a backpack in a way in which it was not designed to be worn puts an undue amount of stress on one side of the body. Many children and teens wear their backpacks over one shoulder, low hanging (around the buttocks), or in the front of their body. When worn in one of these three ways, the weight of the bag is positioned in a place where, muscularly, the body is not designed to carry a load – putting stress & strain on the spine.
Some backpacks have tight and/or narrow shoulder straps that can dig into the shoulders when the bag is filled with books and supplies. This compression on the upper part of the shoulders may restrict circulation and compress on nerves which can contribute to numbness/tingling and weakness in the upper extremities.
When choosing a backpack, look for:
- Shoulder straps that are wide and padded
- Backpacks with 2 shoulder straps
- Padded back
- Waist strap
- Lightweight material
- Rolling backpack
If a child or teenager is already complaining of back, shoulder or neck pain that may be a result of using a backpack that is too heavy or worn improperly, a physical therapist can help to address postural problems, strengthen and stretch muscles, and decrease pain.