While backpacks are one of the most convenient ways to carry books and school supplies, an overloaded and/or improperly worn backpack gets a failing grade, according to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). Physical therapists can assist students in making changes while carrying school items.
"Wearing backpacks improperly or ones that are too heavy put children at increased risk for spinal injury," says Mary Ann Wilmarth, PT, DPT, MS, OCS, director of the transitional doctor of physical therapy degree at Northeastern University in Boston. Wilmarth, an APTA member, conducted a study at a private, pre-kindergarten through 9th grade school in Andover, Massachusetts, and found that postural changes, particularly excessive forward head posture, are magnified when the backpack weighs more than 15% of the student's bodyweight. The postural imbalances appeared to be most significant with prepubescent female students.
"Back pain is already the most common ailment among working Americans adults. If we don't correct the backpack issues that are causing children back pain, the issue will become magnified in years to come," Wilmarth said.
According to Wilmarth, injury can occur when a child, in trying to adapt to a heavy load, uses faulty postures such as arching the back, bending forward, or leaning to one side. These postural adaptations can cause improper spinal alignment, which hampers functioning of the disks that provide shock absorption. A backpack load that is too heavy also causes muscles and soft tissues to work harder, leading to strain and fatigue. This leaves the neck, shoulders, and back more vulnerable to injury.
Another study conducted by Wilmarth found that college-aged students also were affected by disproportionate weight and improper use of backpacks, although not as significantly as with the younger students.
Wilmarth recommends following these tips for safe backpack use:
When selecting a new backpack, Wilmarth recommends choosing ergonomically designed features that enhance safety and comfort:
Wilmarth found that backpacks with wheels are a good option for younger students who did not change classes or go up and down stairs frequently, but there are precautions to use with those as well. Be sure that the extended handle is long enough so that the child is not forced to twist and bend, and that the wheels are sufficiently large so that the backpack doesn't shake or topple. Older students found traditional backpacks to be better due to the frequent walking between classes and also when going to and from school.
Parents and children can avoid injury by recognizing the following warning signs that the backpack is too heavy:
Want to see more? Visit APTA's website to see images showing the correct way to wear a backpack.