House Calls: How much is too much for a child’s backpack?

By Sharryn Jones August 25, 2011 05:44 pm

House Calls runs every other Thursday. Today’s column is written by Sharryn Jones, a physical therapist at Sutter Coast Hospital.

The time has come for school to start again here in Crescent City after the Labor Day holiday. 

As some school districts consider swapping heavy textbooks for e-reader tablets, local health experts understand the impact an overloaded backpack can have on a child — aching back and shoulders, tingling arms, stooped posture and weakened muscles. But parents can help prevent these possible pains in a few simple ways.

According to experts within the Sutter Health System, parents are often surprised at how much their child’s backpack actually weigh.  As a general rule, to prevent injury, your child’s full backpack should weigh no more than 10 to 20 percent of his or her body weight.

How a student wears his or her backpack is often just as important as its overall weight. 

Kids often wear their bag slung over one shoulder or so low that it sits below their waist. This could cause neck and muscle spasms, lower back pain or even numbness and tingling in a student’s arms.

While some experts disagree on whether heavy backpacks are the source of back pain in children, most agree that using good judgment when wearing one will reduce the potential risk of backpack-related injuries.

Here are some tips to lighten the strain on your child’s back:

• Make sure the back pack is the correct size. It should be no larger than your child’s back and should rest 1-2 inches below the shoulders and no more than 4 inches above the waistline (level with the bellybutton).

• Leather is fashionable, but it’s heavier than nylon

• Buy a backpack with a well padded back and wide, padded shoulder straps to minimize pressure on the shoulders and collarbone.  Shoulders and necks have many blood vessels and nerves that can cause pain and tingling in the neck, arms, and hands when too much pressure is applied

• Carry the pack on both shoulders to spread the weight evenly.  Wearing a pack slung over one shoulder can cause a child to lean to one side, curving the spine and causing pain or discomfort

• Tighten the shoulder straps so the bag lies ideally about 2 inches above the waist. A pack that hangs loosely from the back can pull the child backwards and strain muscles

• Consider a backpack with a waist belt. This helps distribute the packs weight more evenly.

• Pack the heaviest items closest to the center of the back to minimize additional strain. Organize the pack so items will not shift around and rest comfortably against the back

• Bend both knees instead of leaning over when hoisting a heavy bag.

• Where possible, talk to your child about using his or her locker to keep from carrying everything around all day. Make sure what your child carries to school and brings home are necessary to the day’s activities

• On days the pack is too heavy, your child can hand-carry a book or other item. Another consideration is to use a book bag on wheels.

• If your child is experiencing neck or back pain, see his or her doctor. A referral to a physical therapist may be beneficial to help with a strengthening program and to address pain issues.

Pack it light, wear it right!

Email suggestions for future House Calls columns to Beth Liles at Sutter Coast Hospital, This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it