Proper backpack usage can prevent back pain in students returning to school

Sep 7 2011
The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) celebrates every third Wednesday of September as National School Backpack Awareness Day to inform Americans of risks of back pain in students starting school.

This event marks an opportunity for parents, teachers and students to educate themselves on preventing back pain caused by improper usage of backpacks. When stuffed too heavily or worn incorrectly, backpacks can pull on the muscles and ligaments, which can lead to pain in the neck, back and shoulders or, in extreme cases, warp the growing spine of a young person, according to Danielle Cooley, MD, pain care specialist from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey School of Osteopathic Medicine.

An ideal backpack has several features to ease the burden of books for a student, Cooley said. The surface that touches the child’s back should be padded to shield the area from sharp and pointy objects in the backpack, such as book corners. Different compartments and pockets will help distribute weight evenly throughout the bag. Parents should buy their children a backpack that has two wide, padded and adjustable straps. Another great alternative is a backpack that rolls on wheels, though many children consider these out of style, Cooley said.

A backpack should be carried so that the bottom of it rests in the curve of the child’s lower back. If belt straps are available, they should be used to distribute the weight more evenly. Wearing the bag improperly by using only one strap or letting it hang loose can lead to alignment problems, muscle strain and back pain, according to AOTA.

The weight of a backpack should be no more than 15 percent of the weight of the student wearing it, AOTA said (e.g., someone weighing 100 pounds should have a backpack of 15 pounds or less). The heaviest items should be placed the closest to the child’s back. If the bag gets too heavy, extra items can be carried by hand. In the long term, items that aren’t being used should be stored in the locker. Also, parents should encourage their children to do their homework sooner rather than later in order to prevent over-stuffing a backpack with textbooks and supplies at the last minute, Cooley said.

Though these tips are useful for juveniles, they are also applicable for adults who use backpacks, Cooley said. Anyone experiencing pain within the first few weeks of using a backpack should consider buying a new one, and consult a physician if pain becomes persistent.