Backpacks. Are they taking the heavy load off?

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Once again September has rolled around and children, students and parents prepare for another school year. New shoes, new clothes and new backpacks to carry all that educational material, school equipment and lunches back and forth, five days a week. Its amazing what materials students can and do cram into that designer, carry on the back, luggage. Looking around we see all the students, grade school up to to grad, bent foreward, lugging overstuffed backpacks to and fro. Young, healthy, bodies may be able to handle this strenuous activity better than older people, but heavy backpacks worn incorrectly can take their toll immediately, or in the future. Though research is increasing, some scientific research reveals alarming danger associated with improper backpack use.

Among some of the research done, it was found that backpacks worn over one shoulder, which alot of students prefer to do as it is fashionable, promoted lateral spinal bending and shoulder elevation. This awkward postion also caused a change in gait, which in turn caused a reduction in stride length and an increase in stride frequency. All of this puts more stress on the spine and muscles. It is believed that the greater number of steps taken with a loaded backpack may cause developement of acute and chronic injuries due to the repeated mechanical stress associated with foot impact during walking. Other research by a Hong Kong organization, using third grade through sixth grade students, revealed that those students carrying over one shoulder had a much greater majority of low-back pain and postural misalignments than those who used both shoulders to carry. These postural imbalances often trigger a condition called vertebral subluxation. Vertebral subluxations are dysfunctional areas in the spine where movement is restricted or bones are out of alignment. Some conditions associated with subluxations are back and neck pain and headaches. Other research done in Scandinavia showed that regardless of how the backpack was worn, the weight was the concerning issue, and caused back pain. Students that carried the backpack by hand even complained of back issues. The study aslo showed females were more likely to experience back pain than males, especially low back pain.

In addition to spinal misalignments, another potential danger of the heavy backpack, especially with younger students, is the risk of falls. Students who carry packs weighing 25% of their body weight exhibit balance problems while performing normal activities such as climbing stairs or opening doors. The more a backpack weighs the more force is required for the body to produce. The body tries to keep its center between the feet so the main body has to be placed into a more foreward postion, which in turn, places more abnormal force on the spine causing more imbalance and stress.
Its obvious that excessive backpack weight can be a problem so prioritizing the pack’s content is very important. Avoid loading unnessary items and load only what is required for that day. It is impotant to balance the weight of the contents or the body will shift into unnatural positions to compensate. Avoid using roller bags. Your child is going to school, not vacation. An empty roller bag can weigh alot more than a backpack and there is the tendency to add more unnecessary items, which will increase the weight. At some point that bag has to be picked up. The maximum weight for a loaded backpack should be no more than 15 – 17% of the students weight, especially younger children. If the pack forces the carrier to bend foreward, it is overloaded.

When purchasing a backpack make sure it is sturdy and appropriately sized for the individual. Make sure the pack fits comfortably on the back and will not slip around when walking. Remember, a backpack that is too large will sag towards the buttock, stressing the individuals back and shoulders. Consider more than looks as a unicorn backpack may look amazing, however it may lack in functionality. An ill-fitted pack can cause back pain, muscle strain, and nerve impingement. The pack should have padded shoulder straps to avoid pressure on the nerves around the armpits. Getting a pack with a waist strap design is really good as it will help stabilize the load and should be used whenever possible. Getting a pack that has individualized compartments will help with positioning contents more effectively.

It is important that students, parents and teachers be educated on the possible effects of an overloaded, or improperly used, backpack on ones health. By following simple steps of not overloading, using both straps and a waist strap, having a proper sized and fitting backpack, will help prepare anyone for better health today and in the future.





“Influence of Carrying Bags and Gait Cycle and Posture of Youths”; David D. Pascoe et al.; 1997
“The Weight of School Bags and its Relationship to Spinal Deformities”; Study of Child Health and Developement – University of Hong Kong; 1988
“Back Pain in School Children, A Study” Trousller, et al.; Scandinavian J. Rehabilitation; 1994


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