Backpack Safety

As your child heads off to school you have probably purchased a new backpack along with other school supplies. 

There are more than 40 million students in the United States that carry backpacks.  Backpacks come in many different shapes and sizes and can hold just about anything one needs to transport; books, binders, water bottles, electronic games, cell phones, a change of clothes, lunches, calculators and other non-essential items. 

These items can increase the weight your child is carrying by up to 25 percent of their body weight.  A backpack weighing 12 pounds lifted 10 times per day for a 180-day school year equals 21,600 pounds; that equates to 11 tons a student will lift and carry in one school year. Welcome to the “backpack generation”. 

Backpack safety has become a concern for parents, teachers, and medical professionals.  Overloaded backpacks are causing illnesses and physical injuries to students daily and study after study is proving just that. 

The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) is working to educate communities about the potentially serious health effects from improperly worn and too heavy backpacks.  There has been an increase in medical research, better media coverage, and proposed legislation to address the issue of backpack weight in relation to student health. 

The United States Consumer Product Safety Commission has tracked emergency room visits related to backpacks.  There was a 360 percent increase between 1996 and 2003.  They estimated that 7,000 emergency room visits in 2001 resulted from injuries related to too heavy book bags and backpacks. 

What this means is your child may be on his or her way to long-term health problems due to adverse effects on posture and the developing spine.  

The spine continues to develop until the age of 18.  Improper use and carrying of the backpack will cause adverse effects on the spine. You have probably witnessed this just by watching your child load up and carry their backpack. 

An overloaded backpack causes a child to struggle to carry the load; leaning forward, rounding shoulders, head forward, or carrying the bag on one shoulder causing one to shrug their shoulder and curve their spine for stability.  Adolescent back pain may be a direct cause to adult back pain later in life.

Dr. Marvin T. Arnsdorff, co-founder of the Charleston, SC-based company Backpack Safety America™, states “the overloaded and improperly carried backpacks shouldered by thousands of school children” is the problem, not the backpack itself.  Backpack Safety America’s™ goal is to help educate children, parents, and teachers about the epidemic problem related to overloaded backpacks.

“The purpose of Backpack Safety America™ is to call attention to a problem” and “to help educate children at an early age to do everyday activities in biomechanically correct ways so they don’t end up with spinal or repetitive stress injuries late in their life.”

So what can one do to help alleviate the pains of carrying too much weight?  Follow these basic backpack tips offered by health care professionals:

  • Buy the appropriate sized backpack for the individual.  Special sized versions for smaller children weigh less and are smaller all the way around; shorter shoulder straps, lengths and widths.  The lighter the pack the better.
  • Bring someone with you to help check the fit.  The bottom of the pack should rest just at the curve of the lower back and never more than 4 inches from the child’s waistline.  A backpack lower on the back approximates the body’s center of gravity with the least effect on posture.
  • Two inch well-padded shoulder straps will protect soft tissue (blood vessels and nerves) from pressure that can cause tingling in the neck, arms, and hands.
  • Never sling the backpack over one shoulder.  This causes the child to lean to one side, with potential pain or discomfort from too much weight.  Always wear both shoulder straps to keep the pack so it is close and snug on the child’s back. 
  • Get a backpack with a waist strap and use it as often as possible.  They help to distribute the weight and prevent the pack from sliding on the back.
  • When loading the backpack place larger heavier items lower and to the back of the pack. Pack only what is needed for the day.  Remember, never allow the child to carry more than 15 percent of his or her body weight.  Make sure items are packed so they won’t slide around in the pack.  Carry only necessary items to school.
  • A loaded backpack should not exceed 15 percent of the child’s weight.  If the child weighs 100-lbs they should not carry more than 15 pounds in the pack.  You can check this by looking at the child’s posture.  If they are bent forward it is too heavy. A heavy backpack with loose items will shift around and cause the child to assume unnatural postures.
  • If the backpack is too heavy, consider hand carrying a heavier book or better yet, use a rolling backpack.  Keep in mind that they will have to pick up a pack to carry up the stairs.
  • To decrease some of the weight replace three-ring binders with spiral bound or composition books for note taking.  If they need three-ring binders then consider two 1-inch binders rather than 3-inch binders.

When lifting the backpack follow these guidelines:

  • Face the backpack before you lift it.
  • Bend at the knees.
  • Using both hands, check the weight of the backpack by using your legs and not your back.
  • Have the backpack up on a solid surface before donning.
  • With your back to the backpack carefully put one shoulder strap on at a time and be sure to wear both shoulder straps.

What can schools do to help with this growing problem?  AOTA has parents, school teachers and administrator asking specific questions regarding the use of backpacks.

  • What is the student carrying in the backpack?
  • Are lockers available where books, supplies, or athletic equipment can be stored?
  • Is possible to get the teacher to post information online to be read and reviewed at home?
  • Are there textbooks on CD-ROM’s that can be purchased?
  • Can photocopies of homework be supplied or duplicating textbooks, one for home and one to be kept in a locker at school?
  • If the items are not needed that day, can they then leave them at home?

Parents can also help the students by making sure they check the due dates on assignments so students are not carrying needless information to and from school.  It is important to involve the student by asking them for suggestions on how they might lighten their backpack loads.

Talk to your child and encourage them to tell you if they have pain or discomfort.  If you child has pain, or complains of tingling or weakness in the arms and legs seek medical attention immediately. 

Wednesday, September 21st is National School Backpack Awareness Day.  Strait Occupational & Hand Therapy is holding an open house after school from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. to help educate parents and students about ergonomics and the proper use of backpacks. 

Please join us for “Health and Success in Schools.” an educational event aimed at protecting your child from poor ergonomics. Bring your child’s backpack for a free risk assessment and recommendations to improve lifting and carrying.

Information for this article was obtained from:  American Occupational Therapy Association, Connecticut Parent Magazine, Backpack Safety (, an internet resource for backpack safety.

Lynda G. Williamson, OTR/L, CHT is an occupational therapist and certified hand therapist.  Lynda is the owner of Strait Occupational & Hand Therapy a privately owned rehabilitation clinic, dedicated to helping individuals recover from upper extremities injuries.

Backpack Safety