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Teen Backpack Pain and What You Should Do About It

Tim Boyer's picture

Have you noticed that your child’s posture is becoming increasingly stooped? Does he or she complain about an aching back and shoulders, or tingling in the arms and hands? Is so, then the chances are that your child’s backpack is too heavy and could be creating a serious health problem.

According to a recent NBC Today health news report, 64% of 11-15 year olds reported experiencing back pain from carrying school backpacks that are too heavy. Furthermore, up to 20% of the teens report feeling chronic back pain 6 months later.

Backpacks that are filled with textbooks, note-taking materials, gym clothes and a lunch typically weigh as much as 30 pounds, which for a 100-pound child is 30% of their body weight. The recommended proper backpack weight is placed at 10% of a child’s weight say health experts who follow this growing problem.

Symptoms of pain in the shoulders and neck as well as tingling in the upper extremities is due to the fact that the shoulders and neck contain many blood vessels and nerves that become pinched from the pressure of the straps pressing the vessels against tissue and bone.

However, it’s not just a problem of carrying a backpack that’s too heavy, but how it is being carried as well. Many students tend to wear the backpacks with the straps fully extended causing the bag to hang too low on their body frame.

“If it's too low, it will bring your spine backwards. And if it's too high, it places too much pressure on your shoulders,” says occupational therapist Nichole Mayer at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus. She also adds that wearing a backpack by one strap off of a shoulder can pull the spine to one side and strain the supporting muscles.

So why are kids carrying backpacks so heavy? One reason has to do with the time it takes to get from one class to another between bells. For many students the distance between a classroom and their locker—as well as fighting through crowded hallways and stairwells—makes carrying just what you need between each class a hurdle that can only be handled by having everything on hand at all times.

“I don’t have time to stop by my locker because it’s out of the way that I go to my classes, and so I have to carry every single thing in my backpack and so it gets really heavy,” says Emily Tate a high school freshman in Columbus, Ohio.

According to NBC Today reporters, some schools are trying to remedy the problem of carrying too many books by having one set in the classroom and a second set that stays at a student’s home. However, for many schools with limited funds this is not a realistic solution.

To help lighten the backpack load and lessen your child’s pain, The American Occupational Therapy Association offers the following backpack tips for parents and teens as part of the National School Backpack Awareness Day event that is observed on the third Wednesday of every September.

School backpack tips to prevent back pain:

• A child’s backpack should weigh no more than about 10% of his or her body weight.

• Select a pack with well-padded shoulder straps.

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• School backpacks come in different sizes for different ages. Choose the right size pack for your child as well as one with enough room for necessary school items.

• Load heaviest items closest to the child’s back (the back of the pack).

• Distribute weight evenly by using both straps.

• The height of the backpack should extend from approximately 2 inches below the shoulder blades to waist level or slightly above the waist. The bottom of the pack should rest in the curve of the lower back. It should never rest more than four inches below the child’s waistline.

• Wear the waist belt if the backpack has one. This helps distribute the pack’s weight more evenly.

• Arrange books and materials so they won’t slide around in the backpack.

• Check what your child carries to school and brings home. Make sure the items are necessary for the day’s activities.

• If the backpack is too heavy or tightly packed, your child can hand-carry a book or other item outside the pack.

• If the backpack is too heavy on a regular basis, consider using a book bag on wheels if your child’s school allows it.

For an additional informative article about child safety at school, click-on the titled link “Children with Milk Allergies Need to Avoid This One Hidden Milk Allergen in School,” that you may need to know about to keep your child safe this school year.

Image Source: Courtesy of PhotoBucket


NBC Today: “More Teens Report Back Pain from Heavy Backpacks”

The American Occupational Therapy Association: Backpack Day Handouts, Artwork, and Video