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Does Your Child’s Backpack Make the Grade?

Load positioned correctly

With school in full swing and the kids bringing home loaded backpacks, now is the perfect time to find out if your child’s backpack makes the grade.  According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, more than 7000 children were injured in 2007 due to overloaded backpacks.  While backpacks are a fun and practical way for children and teenagers to carry books and supplies, they may cause problems when they are too heavy or worn incorrectly.

Compared to sling packs, messenger bags, or purses, backpacks are the wisest choice when considering your child’s health.  When worn correctly, backpacks distribute weight across the body more evenly and use the strong back and abdominal muscles to support the load.  This results in less stress on the shoulders and neck than that caused by carrying totes or purses.  As handy as backpacks can be, however, they have the potential to strain muscles and joints.

What’s the Problem?

Load positioned incorrectly

While many factors can lead to back pain, hauling around a locker’s worth of books and supplies takes a toll on a growing back.  When adjusting to carrying a heavy load, children (and adults) may develop faulty habits such as arching the back, bending forward, or leaning to one side.  This causes the bones in the spine to be lined up incorrectly.  When the bones are not lined up correctly, the discs in between the bones compress unnaturally and become less effective at “shock absorption.”  Muscles and soft tissues must also work harder to carry a heavy load which leads to strain, fatigue, and an increased chance of injury.  Your child may complain of pain in their neck, shoulders, or back if this is occurring.

Improper backpack use may also lead to poor posture.  A recent study showed that postural changes such as forward head were magnified when a backpack weighed more than 15% of the student’s bodyweight.  These imbalances appeared to be the most significant in adolescent girls.  Girls ages 11 to 16 experience rapid growth and can be particularly prone to injury during puberty.  Even though girls often weigh less and have a smaller frame than boys, they are still carrying the same amount of backpack weight.

Straps adjusted correctly

Backpack straps are another important consideration.  While narrow straps may be stylish, they have a tendency to dig into the shoulders. This can interfere with circulation and nerve function.  Straps that are thin or unpadded may contribute to numbness, tingling and weakness in the arms and hands.  While these symptoms are usually short-lived, you should be aware that children who wear backpacks for longer periods (such as when walking to and from school) are at increased risk of injury.

Making an A+ Choice

Strap it up – Two wide, padded shoulder straps are best and using both straps is even better.  Avoid the use of one strap only – by wearing two shoulder straps, the weight of the backpack is better distributed.

Lighten the load– Keep the load at 10-15% or less of your child’s bodyweight (for example, if your child weighs 80 pounds, his/her backpack should weigh no more than 8-12 pounds).  Choose a lightweight pack that does not contribute to the overall weight of your child’s load.  When organizing the contents of the backpack, it is helpful to have multiple compartments to help distribute the weight more evenly.  Place the heaviest items closest to your child’s back to decrease stress on his/her body.

Straps positioned incorrectly

Consider comfort features – Backpacks offer comfort features such as padded backs which add cushion and protect your child from sharp edges.  Also consider purchasing a pack with a waist belt which helps distribute the weight more evenly across the body.

Fits like a glove – Pay close attention to the way the backpack fits your child.  It should rest evenly in the middle of the back, not extending below the low back.  The shoulder straps should be tightened enough for the backpack to fit closely to the body and sit approximately two inches above the waist.  Be careful not to adjust the straps too tightly – your child should be able to move his/her arms freely and put on and take off the backpack without difficulty.

Weight lifting – As with picking up any weight, proper technique can help prevent injury.  Instruct your child to bend at the knees and grab the pack with both hands.  Encourage your child to keep the backpack as close to the body as possible when lifting and avoid a lot of twisting when putting on and removing the pack.

What about wheelies? – Wheeled backpacks are a good option for younger students who do not change classes or go up and down stairs frequently, but there are precautions that should be taken with rolling packs.  The handle should be long enough to prevent your child from twisting and bending.  The wheels should also be large enough to prevent the backpack from shaking, toppling, or getting hung up in rough terrain.  Before purchasing a rolling pack, you should check with your child’s school – many schools do not allow wheeled backpacks because of the tripping hazard they pose in hallways and when loading busses.


While it has been reported that 30-50% of adolescents complain of pain related to backpack use, rest assured these injuries are usually temporary.  The extra weight and pressure has not been shown to cause structural or long-term spinal damage nor has it been linked to scoliosis.  Given that back pain is the most common ailment among working American adults, however, it makes sense to start making wise choices during the early years.  When looking at 13+ years of backpack use and kids expressing their individual style through backpack choice, you as the parent should keep your child’s safety in mind.