A word to parents from our Silver Spring physical therapists: make sure your kids are not overloading backpacks and using them properly to avoid back pain

silver spring physical therapists backpacks

August 28, 2019

As kids make their way back to school over the next few weeks, they’ll soon be hitting the books, and those books will be hitting their backpacks, often filling them to capacity. While messenger bags have emerged as a popular option for school-age children, backpacks remain the most commonly used and practical choice for carrying around notebooks, textbooks, binders, and all other belongings needed to get through the school day. But lugging around a massive backpack day after day or not using it properly may also carry with it some risks, with back pain being chief amongst them. Fortunately, there are some simple tips and strategies that our Silver Spring physical therapists can provide you with to make sure your kids are taking on more weight than they can handle every day.

The medical research on the connection between backpacks and back pain may be difficult to interpret because findings are often inconclusive and may even contradict one another. Nonetheless, there are several general conclusions that appear to be true based on the current medical literature on the topic. Among these are the following:

  • Carrying heavy backpacks, or carrying backpacks incorrectly in a way that’s stressful to the back is likely to be a common cause of back pain in children and adolescents
  • Most back pain caused by backpacks is short term and will usually go away on its own with rest and avoiding additional strain on the back
  • There is no evidence that wearing a heavy backpack can lead to scoliosis or any other deformities of the spine
  • The recommendation that children limit the weight of backpacks to 10-15% of their bodyweight is not based on scientific evidence, but is found to be reasonable

The leading theory behind how backpacks can lead to back pain is as follows: wearing a heavy backpack often causes the person wearing it to pull the body backward. To compensate for this force, the person may bend forward at the hips or arch the back. This can cause the spine to compress in an unnatural way, and as a result of this compression, the ligaments and muscles surrounding the spine are stretched and overworked. Together, these forces can lead to back pain that may get progressively worse if nothing is done to address it.

Backpack safety tips from our Silver Spring physical therapists

Parents should be aware of these risks and take the steps necessary to ensure that their children are using the right type of backpack and carrying it properly. Our Silver Spring physical therapists recommend the following tips for backpack safety:

  • Messenger bags may be preferred by some for stylistic reasons, but they can cause excessive strain on one shoulder and lead to balance problems; for this and other reasons, backpacks remain the safer option for children and adolescents
  • Ensure that your child is using a backpack with wide, padded shoulder straps, a padded back, and multiple compartments to more evenly distribute its weight
  • Try to limit the weight of your child’s backpack to no more than 10-15% of their body weight; this means if your child weighs 100 pounds, the bag should weigh a maximum of 15 pounds
    • A good rule of thumb is that your child should not be leaning forward when walking with their backpack; if they are, the bag is probably too heavy
    • One way to limit the weight of bags is to only carry what’s needed and to make frequent stops at the locker to exchange books appropriately; some parents may want to invest in a second set of textbooks for home to prevent lugging around heavy books frequently
  • Urge your child to wear their backpack on both shoulders rather than on just one shoulder, which can strain that shoulder and the back
  • Also encourage your child to tighten the straps of the backpack so that its close to the back, and to use hip and chest belts to more evenly distribute the bag’s weight
  • Talk to your child and ask them about their back and if they are experiencing any pain or soreness; if so, it may be time to get another backpack, change the way they’re wearing it, or reduce how much they carry

It’s important to highlight that back pain is complicated and it’s not always easy to pinpoint the exact cause. This means you should be aware of some of the dangerous habits associated with backpacks, but also recognize that other factors may be at work as well, some of which are difficult to identify. But if your child is experiencing back pain, our Silver Spring physical therapists can help by evaluating potential causes and creating a personalized treatment program to address it. Contact CAM Physical Therapy and Wellness Services at 240-500-1830 to schedule an appointment at any of our four clinics in Silver Spring, Hyattsville, Laurel, or Glenn Dale/Bowie, MD, or click here for more information on backpacks and back pain.