Backpacks should carry only 10 to 15 percent of the person's body weight and be worn in the middle of the back.
Parents of children in elementary and secondary school often hear the most flap about backpack safety, but the topic is a back-to-school concern for students of all ages.
“Kids are carrying more stuff it’s not just books that they’re carrying, it’s their iPods and their cellphones,” said Cynthia Tiongco, OTR, MOT, assistant professor in the School of Allied Health Sciences’ Department of Occupational Therapy. “A lot of kids especially when you get to high school and college carry computers. [Students are] carrying more heavy things than they used to.”
Backpacks that are too heavy or worn the wrong way can cause pain and strain, leading to aching backs and shoulders, tingling arms, weakened muscles and stooped posture, according to the American Occupational Therapy Association Inc.
“If for 15 years in school you carry your backpack on one shoulder, you’re looking at [developing bad] habits and one side being stronger than the other,” Tiongco said. “You’re doing a lot of accommodating, so if you keep doing it over the long term, muscles can get weak, you can start tilting your head a certain way, and you can get nerve damage if your straps are too tight.”
Whether you’re walking across a college campus or through school hallways, always wear your backpack on both shoulders, Tiongco said. Slinging a backpack over one shoulder can cause one side of the body to bear the weight of the backpack. Wearing two straps ensures the weight of the backpack is more evenly distributed.
“When I was in high school in the ‘90s, you wore it on one shoulder you wouldn’t be caught with it on two shoulders,” Tiongco said, “But now two shoulders is more of the trend … that probably stems from somebody caring about [backpack safety].”
Always remember that a backpack should only carry 10 to 15 percent or less of a person’s body weight and should rest in the middle of the back, Tiongco said. Only carry items that are essential for the day. If you must carry a heavy load, organize books and other items so the heaviest items are closest to the back.
Other backpack safety tips include:
- When backpack shopping, look for well-padded shoulder straps.
- Make sure the backpack fits snugly and doesn’t hang more than 4 inches below the waistline.
- If the backpack has a waist belt, always buckle it to help distribute the weight of the pack more evenly.
“Traditional backpacks are probably the best because they do distribute the weight more evenly throughout your shoulders and across your back, and if you get the bigger ones, you have the weight belts,” Tiongco said. “The best is to not have it your back at all.”
Backpack alternatives include using rolling bags or keeping a set of books at home. However, rolling bags can cause problems in busy hallways, and purchasing or renting schoolbooks can be expensive.
If you or your child has already experienced back pain or other troubles associated with improper backpack use, a physical therapist might be able to help improve posture or correct muscle imbalances, Tiongco said. An occupational therapist can help you choose a proper backpack and fit to prevent future problems or conduct an ergonomic assessment.
“Children who change the way they carry their backpack report less back and neck pain,” Tiongco said. “If you’re seeing a posture problem, muscle imbalance or pain, physical or occupational therapists can help with that help kids get strong and stay strong.”