Back pain: How heavy backpacks are the cause

Kids' backpacks are getting so heavy that they're causing serious back pain. There are a few things parents can do to ensure their children are carrying the right load.

Photo: sjlocke/iStockphoto

A Spanish study published in the medical journal Archives of Disease in Childhood shows that carrying heavy backpacks in grade school is the norm, not the exception.

Of the more than 1,400 12- to 17-year-old kids surveyed, 61.5 percent carried more than 10 percent of their own body weight to school each day, and one in four said they had suffered from back pain for more than 15 days the previous year. The average backpack weight was 15.4 pounds, and scoliosis—or curvature of the spine—was diagnosed in 70 percent of the students who complained of back pain. Some students suffered from involuntary muscle contractions.

A global issue

“We expected a high percentage of schoolchildren to be carrying heavy backpacks, but that 61.5 percent surpassed our expectations,” says researcher Alberto Ruano, one of the study’s authors. He points to other studies in Australia and England that have shown similar results, but says this is by far the biggest sample. “In our opinion, these findings can be applied to [other] developed countries [like Canada],” he says.

Tips to take a load off

Shelly Beazley, from the Canadian Physiotherapy Association, agrees. “Neck and shoulder pain related to backpack weight is common. With too much weight on the back, kids pull forward with the shoulders, and lean the head forward, which can cause pinching and muscular imbalance.”

Fortunately, Beazley has a few tips. First, buy a pack that fits. The shoulder straps should be wide enough to distribute weight, but shouldn’t impede arm movement. The bag should fall two inches above the waistline and follow the contour of the back, not hang off the shoulders.

Heavy items should sit low in the bag, and the total weight should not exceed 15 percent of your child’s body weight (below 10 percent is ideal). Lastly, says Beazley, “remind them not to carry the pack on one shoulder.”

A version of this article appeared in our September 2012 issue with the headline “Take a load off,” p. 90.

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