Pack light when it comes to backpack safety matters

August 20, 2013

By Christina Corrales-Toy

As the bustle of the back-to-school shopping season descends upon Issaquah School District families, it’s likely that a new backpack is at the top of the shopping list.

The backpack featuring a student’s favorite cartoon character will likely stand out, as will the one with that particularly hip design, but it’s not the color that matters so much as the function.

Thinkstock Backpacks, with increased capacity for a growing homework load, can cause problems with students’ backs if worn incorrectly.

Backpacks, with increased capacity for a growing homework load, can cause problems with students’ backs if worn incorrectly.

Studies show that overloaded or improperly worn backpacks can cause back, neck and shoulder pain that, if left untreated, could grow worse into adulthood.

“I think purchasing a properly fitting backpack is a good place to start,” said Dr. Carrie Babcox, of Issaquah Family Chiropractic.

A backpack is always the best option because it evenly distributes the weight of its contents across the student’s body, Babcox said. Stay away from book bags with only a single strap or over-the-shoulder messenger bags that place a heavier burden on just one side of a child or teen’s body.

Students should look for backpacks with wider, padded straps that also offer a padded back, crucial for lower back support. Backpacks with a waist strap also help even the distribution of weight, particularly taking stress away from the shoulders.

While students have control in the type of backpack they purchase, the control lessens a bit when it comes to its contents. Students are required to attend school prepared with the proper supplies, textbooks and notebooks.

“Kids shouldn’t be carrying more than 20 percent of their body weight,” said Dr. Rachel Catini, of Issaquah Family Chiropractic. “The kids nowadays are carrying a lot more than what they should be.”

The ideal number is actually in the 15 percent to 20 percent range, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. That means a 100-pound student should only carry about 15 pounds.

The problem is not just isolated to middle and high school students, though. It’s becoming an issue for early elementary school students as well, Catini said.

“If you look at these pixie little kids, they really shouldn’t be carrying a lot more than 10 pounds,” she said. “It’s starting in elementary school. Probably not so much kindergarten and not so much preschool, but it is definitely happening in elementary school.”

The weight of school materials can certainly add up, especially for students that don’t have the luxury of a locker, as is the case in many of the Issaquah School District facilities.

“When they don’t get a locker, that’s a lot harder on their spines,” Catini said. “The kids definitely come in complaining about their backs more when they have to do that.”

One solution to the problem is to get two sets of textbooks for students, one to use at school, and one for home, so they don’t have to worry about carrying them back and forth, Catini and Babcox advised.

Students and parents should also be vigilant about what exactly goes into the backpack, using the space as efficiently as possible.

“Make sure that you’re putting the essentials into the backpacks as opposed to a Nintendo DS,” Babcox said.

Kids and teens should also make sure they understand how to properly pick up a backpack, a useful tool for those students who must pick them up after every period.

“Rather than just reaching down, bend and use your knees to pick up the backpack to reduce strain on the back and spine,” Babcox said.

If students do start to complain of back pain, Babcox and Catini suggested that parents take them to a doctor right away, before the problem becomes less manageable.

“Sometimes, parents think it’s a phase, it will pass or that it’s growing pains. We get that a lot,” Catini said. “Yes, to some degree it can be growing pains, but for the most part, it really shouldn’t be.”


Safety tips

  • To prevent injury when using a backpack, do the following:
  • Always use both shoulder straps to keep the weight of the backpack better distributed across a child’s back.
  • Tighten the straps to keep the load closer to the back.
  • Pack light: Kids should carry no more than 15 percent to 20 percent of their body weight.
  • Organize the items: Pack heavier things low and toward the center.
  • Remove items if the backpack is too heavy: Carry only those items that are required for the day, and if possible, leave unnecessary books at home or school.
  • Lift properly by bending at the knees when picking up a backpack.
  • Build muscle strength.


Source: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons

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