Back to school: How to lighten the load of heavy backpacks

Two adorable boys in colorful clothes and backpacks, walking away, holding and eating ice cream on a sunny summer afternoon, warm day, casual clothing

Many of us can recall the good-old days when middle and high schools had lockers. Although the contents of these hallway storage units defined our persona — from stickers and dirty jerseys to notebooks and love letters — they were the hub of social interactions and provided us a place to store books and binders for the classes we needed.

But sadly, weapons and drugs that found their way into these lockers as well as hallway cliques and congestion. Toss in the savings of thousands of construction dollars, and you can understand why lockers disappeared from schools. And with their disappearance came the backpack. Yet many locker-less schools are facing criticism from parents, who argue that it results in heavier backpacks for students.

So every morning the march of backpacks begins; tortoise-looking kids hunched forward to counterbalance the weight of their saddled packs, moving up and down the stairwells and through the hallways. You have to wonder what impact 12 years of backpack toting has on growing spines.

Harry Wallop asks “Why Must My Children’s School Bags Be So Heavy?” His Telegraph article shares his lamentations as he notes that his son’s bag is almost 13 pounds. Throw in his 11-pound trombone and he is lugging almost 33 percent of his body weight. One study found that 25 percent of teens suffer from backpack related back/neck pain.

He notes that many kids carry their bags on one shoulder or on the crook of their elbow — placing a great strain on the spine. Parents should insist that their children pack their bags only with what they need for the next day and ensure that they are worn on both shoulders.

Excess baggage

Jessica Samakow discusses the dangers of heavy backpacks in her Huffpost article, The Dangers of Heavy Backpacks — and How Kids Can Wear Them Safely. She says that after lunch, school supplies, water bottles, sport shoes, laptops, iPods, binders and textbooks are all tucked in, many kids feel like they are carrying the weight of the world on their backs.According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, at least 14,000 children are treated for backpack-related injuries every year and so The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons recommends that the weight of a backpack should be less than 10 to 15 percent of a child’s body. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen and to compound that, kids don’t wear their packs correctly — both of which increase risk of injury.

Improper use of backpacks may injure muscles and joints and can lead to severe back, neck and shoulder pain.

Background on backpacks

The spine is made of 33 bones called vertebrae, and between the vertebrae are gelatin like discs that act as natural shock absorbers. When a backpack filled with books is incorrectly placed on the shoulders, the force can pull a child backward. To compensate, the child may bend forward at the hips or arch the back, which can cause the vertebrae to compress unnaturally.

▪ One shoulder. Kids who wear their backpacks over just one shoulder may end up leaning to one side to offset the extra weight. They might develop lower and upper back pain and strain their shoulders and neck.

▪ Tight, narrow straps. Ill-fitting straps can dig into the shoulders and interfere with circulation and nerves. These types of straps can contribute to tingling, numbness, and weakness in the arms and hands.

▪ Other safety issues to consider. Large packs can whack other kids when turning around or moving through tight spaces, such as the aisles of the school bus.

The Professionals Speak

Akron Children’s Hospital Pediatric orthopedic surgeon Todd Ritzman says that although backpacks do not typically cause long-term back problems or spine deformities, they cause the head and shoulders to lean forward producing neck and shoulder muscle strain/pain, especially if a child is carrying too much weight or if the weight isn’t evenly distributed across his back.

Ritzman also notes that children who have more sedentary lifestyles may be at increased risk for muscular pain because they aren’t routinely moving or stretching large muscle groups in their body.

CNN writer Jamie Gumbrecht discusses the backpack issue with Boston University professor of occupational yherapy Karen Jacobs in the article “Inside Student’s Heavy Backpacks — Why It’s Too Much and How to Help.” Jacobs says she can spot changes in students’ postures in any school hallway. She says that some complain they have headaches, pain in the shoulders, neck, backs.

How to spot a heavy load

Parents should take note if your child:

▪ Grunts when putting on or taking off the backpack

▪ Has red marks or creases on shoulders

▪ Complains that arms or fingers are “falling asleep”

▪  as hunched posture when walking with backpack on

▪ Complains of neck or shoulder aches

▪ Complains of headaches

What to do about it

Jacobs and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that parents look for backpacks that:

▪ Fit properly. The size should be proportional to the size of the child; the height of the backpack.

▪ Should be no more than three-quarters of the length between the child’s shoulder blades and waist.

▪ Have wide, padded, adjustable straps.

▪ Have a hip strap or lumbar (low back) pillow. The hip strap when used, can distribute a portion of the weight to the hips, easing the load on the spine and shoulders. Shoulders are not designed to hang things from.

▪ Have side pockets to distribute weight evenly for things like water bottles.

Parents should …

▪ Encourage kids who haul large musical instruments or awkward sports equipment to get a case that moves on wheels.

▪ Pack the heaviest items closest to the student’s back.

▪ Look for ways to lighten the load — soft lunch containers and lightweight water bottles.

▪ Urge kids to wear both straps, rather than slinging a strap over one shoulder.

▪ Ask the teacher for textbooks to keep at home.

What Kids Can Do

▪ Remind kids to leave unnecessary things at home. Do they really need that video game player? Are they lugging around binders and books for classes they have on alternate days?

▪ Encourage homework planning. A heavier pack on Fridays might mean that they are procrastinating on homework until the weekend.

▪ Picking up backpacks the correct way can prevent back injuries. Bend at the knees and grab the pack with both hands when lifting a backpack to the shoulders.

▪ Use all of the backpack’s compartments, putting heavier items, such as textbooks, closest to the center of the back.

What about roller bags?

Although you might think that pulling a roller backpack would be better than allowing your child to carry a pack on their back/shoulders, an empty roller bag may weigh up to 80 percent more than an empty backpack. Roller bags run larger, which invites a heavier load as much as 50 pounds. Although the bag will be rolled, you have to keep in mind that most kids are still at risk when they haul their bag up or down stairs or retrieve it from the back of a car.

Future

Although lockers were the symbol of the American high school for decades, backpacks seemed to have filled in the gap as they disappeared. But with technologies like eBooks, interactive assignments and web-based learning, even backpacks may become a thing of the past as the list of essential items needed for the school day shortens. Until then, keep them light, padded and hanging on the hips.