Choose and Use Backpacks Correctly to Prevent Back Pain

Tips on finding the right backpack for your child to prevent back pain

children in class with school backpacks
Having the wrong size school backpack and using a backpack incorrectly can lead to back pain in children.. JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

Kids these days seem to be lugging around increasingly heavy school backpacks. “I often see kids with a couple of binders and two or three textbooks in their bag,” says Michael O’Brien, MD, sports medicine physician at Boston Children's Hospital. And having the wrong size backpack and using it incorrectly can lead to back pain and other problems in kids.

Dr. O’Brien foresees e-readers and tablets eventually alleviating some of this weight.

Until then, here’s what parents need to know to make sure their child has the right type of backpack and is using it correctly to prevent back problems.

Tips for Buying Backpacks for School

  • Buy bags with wide straps. When buying a backpack, make sure the shoulder straps are wide and padded to help prevent shoulder pain. Also look for a padded back panel, to prevent sharp books from poking into your child’s back.
  • Avoid full-sized backpacks. The problem with adult-sized backpacks is that they allow room for too many things, which can result in a backpack that’s too heavy for a school-age child.
  • Check with your school before getting a rolling backpack. Many schools have banned these types of bags because they don’t store as well in lockers and are often kept in the hallway, where they can be tripped over, says Dr. O’Brien. Then there’s the fact that many kids simply don’t like these types of styles and don’t want to use them because it may make them stand out from the rest of the kids.

    How to Use Backpacks Correctly

    • Make sure the backpack is not too heavy. Take items that aren't absolutely necessary out of your child's backpack. (He won't need all the school supplies he bought for back-to-school, even if he's the kind of kid who wants to bring 30 pencils and extra notebooks.) As the weight of the backpack approaches 20 percent of a child’s body weight, there is an increased risk that she will experience pain, says Dr. O’Brien. When a backpack is too heavy, a child will bend forward to compensate for the weight, and will have trouble getting it on properly.
    • Remind her to put both straps on her shoulders. This helps keep the weight balanced and prevents shoulder pain.
    • See where the backpack rests on your child’s body. Ideally, the bottom of the backpack should be at the small of your child’s back. The best way to measure this: Visualize a line going around from your child’s bellybutton to his back. That line should be where the bottom of the bag hits. Adjust the shoulder straps until the bottom of the bag meets that line.
    • Store books in lockers. Teach your child to put his textbooks in his locker as soon as he gets to school so that he doesn’t have to carry them around all day. Then, he can switch the books out when he needs them for a certain class.
    • Balance the contents of the backpack. Teach your child how to pack the bag properly so that the weight is distributed evenly. Put the bigger and heavier contents on the bottom and make sure things are balanced and symmetrical from left to right.
    • Consider carrying some things separately. If the bag is too heavy, have your child carry his water bottle, lunch, or some books separately.
    • Tell her to never ignore pain. Explain to your child that ignoring pain in her back or shoulders could lead to injury. Tell her to let you know right away if she experiences any discomfort.
    • Try strengthening exercises. And finally, if your child is small for his age or has experienced back pain, talk to your doctor about exercises he can do to strengthen his upper back. By having the right backpack and using it correctly, you child will avoid future back pain and problems.

    Continue Reading