This is the time of year where mothers and fathers across the land begin
to worry about what gear their students need for school, and questions
about school backpacks come up time and again.
What’s the heaviest backpack my child should wear? What is too heavy
– is there a maximum weight or is it based on a percentage of body
weight? Is there a maximum time per day a heavy backpack should be carried?
How do I choose the right backpack: cool looks-form-and-design or fit-and-function?
One strap or two, multiple compartments or one, padded or unpadded, waist
strap or not? What’s the best way to wear a backpack, high on the
back, low on the back, one strap or two?
If my child has back pain, is it from the back pack design, improper wear,
improper loading, excessive time, my child’s deconditioning or obesity?
If the backpack is too heavy in childhood and adolescence and causes pain,
will my child have pain later life as a result? If my child complains
of neck and back pain, is it always the fault of the backpack? How do
the teachers and medical societies weigh in? Since 2011 alone, more than
6,000 articles are in print in the medical literature addressing these issues.
So, what’s the background information, and how common is back pain
in kids? And is it always the fault of the backpack?
Among children between the ages of 11 and 14 years, almost 40% complain
of neck and lower back pain. Of those in pain, 80% attributed their pain
to backpack use. Several ergonomic studies show immediate deleterious
effects of children standing, walking, climbing stairs, and balancing
with excessively heavy backpacks. Heavy backpacks can cause neck shoulder
and back muscular problems such as postural compensation and strain, and
makes kids more prone to injury and falling especially if the loads are
unbalanced. Girls complained of neck and back pain more than boys, especially
if they wore the pack with one strap. Adolescents complain more of back
pain when the packs are heavier and are worn for longer periods of time,
such as more than the 10 minute average from bus to class.
But that’s not the whole story – it’s not always the pack.
Sedentary lifestyle is possibly the most important factor determining back
pain among schoolchildren. Lack of physical activity contributes to loss
of muscle strength and tone in the lower back. Students who complain of
back pain after carrying their packs often complained of pain before carrying
packs. Studies report that back pain in children is often related more
to psychosomatic factors and daily experience with back pain rather than
use of a backpack. Children who were deconditioned or referred to themselves
as “sedentary” or felt fatigued while carrying their backpacks
during the usual 10 minute walk from the bus to class, had more back pain
than the children who described themselves as “fit or active”.
Given that we can’t be 100% sure where the pain is coming from, what
do we recommend is the heaviest the pack should weigh?
I recommend limiting backpack weight to 10% of body weight. (A 100 pound
student should carry 10 pounds). Up to 20% of body weight is the maximum
load that can be carried safely, according to several medical societies
(pediatrics, physical therapy and orthopedics), although there is no absolute
consensus. We all know that these recommendations are ignored routinely.
In the United States more than 9 out of 10 children carry backpacks that
weighed more than 10% and up to 22% of their body weight. Those carrying
the heaviest backpacks complained of pain 50% more than the others.
The good news is, no study has ever shown that carrying a backpack that’s
too heavy leads to more problems later in life or to the development of
problems like disk herniations or scoliosis. It just hurts now. The bad
news is, children who have headaches, backpain and anxiety now often complain
of the same symptoms later in adulthood.
But what about the backpack? There is no perfect backpack. Backpacks vary
in design depending on what they’re intended use might be, such
as for long trips, marching, camping, or daily use for school. My best
recommendation for the backpack based on the research is as follows:
- Two shoulder straps with a chest compression strap.
- Plenty of lower back padding, and a waist strap.
- Skip the water bottle or carry it empty to school.
- Two compartments in the pack, and load the heaviest objects in the compartment
closest to the spine.
- Wear high and tight on the back rather than low and loose.
- Try the backpack on as if you were trying on a pair of shoes. Bring some
books with you, load the pack, and have your student walk around the store
with that. Quickly, function and fit will supersede looks and coolness.
To all parents, here is the obvious conclusion: until all books are on
CD ROM or available 100% online, students will be carrying heavy packs
to and from school. So remember, max pack weight of 10% of body weight
is best, never more than 20%. And kids, stay fit and get off the couch.