Ah, back to school shopping. New sets of flashy folders. Packs of markers in every hue. And a backpack to haul it all. Your child’s eyes might ignite when he sees a flimsy superhero backpack—or your teenage daughter may beg for one with so many compartments it could hold enough food for a year. But, parents should be involved in choosing a backpack, because picking the wrong one could result in some serious back or neck discomfort or pain for your child.
At this point, the research isn’t showing a direct correlation between incorrect backpack use and long-term back injury. That’s because there are no related longitudinal studies (studies that track a child all the way through adulthood). However, you can read about some of the most recent backpack research in Packing Pain: Study Reveals New Insights About Backpack Pain.
“Children may report having discomfort or pain, but with no longitudinal studies on backpack use, we are taking the evidence-based literature and extrapolating what we see,” says Karen Jacobs, OT, OTR, EdD, CPE, FAOTA, clinical professor of occupational therapy at Boston University’s College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences: Sargent College. “The only thing the literature is showing is if a child has back issues as a teen, that it may continue when they are an adult. But, we can’t say that’s only caused by backpack use.”
Jacobs notes that while backpacks might not be directly responsible for spinal injury, they may cause discomfort or pain in children when worn incorrectly. Wearing a backpack that is too heavy, the amount of time carrying a backpack, the distance walked, inadequate distribution of weight in the backpack, and poor placement of items in the backpack can be contributing risk factors for discomfort, fatigue, muscle soreness, musculoskeletal pain (especially in the lower back), respiratory problems, and other issues. That’s why many health advocacy groups, and professional associations recommend backpacks weigh 10% of the child’s total body weight.
With back to school just around the corner, now is the perfect time to establish some sound ergonomic backpack habits.
Top Tips for Backpack Safety
Jacobs says parents need to select the right backpack that fits the child and child’s needs in school. “Take control over what backpack is picked,” she says.
Below are Jacobs’ top 6 tips for picking a backpack that won’t saddle your child with discomfort or pain:
Once you’ve found the right backpack, Jacobs shares her best advice to use it properly throughout the school year:
Happy Campers: A Note on Camping Backpacks
If you’re going on an end-of-summer camping trip, Jacobs says the same rules apply for camping backpacks as they do for school: Be bare bones with compartments and make sure the pack is padded. But, she says hip and chest straps are essential with camping backpacks.
“People on the weekends go hiking and suddenly become warriors: They put as much as they can in their pack,” Jacobs says. “Make sure you carry only what you need, and be sure you use your backpack’s hip and chest straps.”
Jacobs says the hip and chest straps take weight off your shoulders and back, and redistribute them onto your hips—an area better able to support that weight.
“The bottom line is are you comfortable?” Jacobs says. “Part of the whole aspect of being in nature is being healthy—and you’re not healthy if you’re not comfortable.”
2018’s National School Backpack Awareness Day Is September 26
Each September, the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), along with occupational therapy practitioners, educators, parents, and students, marks National School Backpack Awareness Day. This year’s event is September 20, and the day aims to educate the public on backpack safety through backpack weigh-ins, backpack check-ups, activities, and special events. Check with your local school district to see if events are being held near you.
Jacobs shared that backpacks have developed a bad reputation due to overpacking and ill fit, but they can help support physical fitness in kids. By conveniently and comfortably holding all the items a child needs, backpacks encourage walking—whether to and from school or simply between classes. By ensuring a backpack is a good weight and supportive, you can look forward to a healthy school year ahead.