Heavy backpacks could be contributing to adolescent back pain. This is around the time kids are hitting a growth spurt and the number of items they need to lug around begin increasing. Textbooks, laptops, and other items add weight to our children’s packs and pressure to their spines.

Many articles have found associations between heavy backpacks and pain in school children. In 2017, the British Journal of Pain put out a first ever nation-wide study of the topic.

“The study was the first national study which looked into the effect of bag weight on back pain in schoolchildren in Malta. It found that bag weight contributes towards back pain in children, together with BMI, gender and grade.”\

How can it cause back pain?

A group of researchers decided to investigate what the low back looked like with heavy back packs. The study took standing MRIs of children around 11 years old. Then they repeated the scans with 4 kg, 8 kg, and 12 kg backpacks. That is around 9, 18, and 27 pounds. There were two significant findings.

Lumbar disc compressibility during backpack loading.

Backpack loads significantly compress each disc and the compressibility increased in the lower discs when compared to measurements taken while laying down.

Lumbar spinal asymmetry during backpack loading.

Lumbar spinal asymmetry was assessed by measuring the angle of the curve from S1 to L1 during all loading conditions. Backpack loads significantly increased lumbar asymmetry.

The participants were also asked to rate their pain on a scale of 0 to 10 with each added weight. More weight equaled more pain even when the participant had no pain without a backpack.

With these dangers, we owe it to our children to make sure their backpacks aren’t too heavy. And make sure to lighten their load whenever possible. We probably don’t need a study to tell us that an 80-pound kid shouldn’t be carrying a 40-pound backpack.

Aside from the unnecessary struggle, heavy backpacks can cause changes in head posture and weight distribution across the feet. The forward lean many students will take on to counter the pull of a heavy backpack might be related to the increase in Text Neck we’re seeing in children today. Heavy loads may also be hard for small children to balance and cause them to fall. If they fall forwards, the heavy load might impart additional crushing injuries.

Steps to take

Here are some recommendations to help keep your child safe and their load, light.

  • Keep the weight below 10-15% the child’s weight.
    • An 80-pound child’s backpack should be around 8 to 12 pounds
  • Use both straps and avoid single strap bags
  • Adjust the bag so it hangs at the middle of the back, not sag to the buttocks
  • When shopping for a bag look for
    • Lightweight
    • Widepadded shoulder straps
    • Padded back
    • Multiple compartments (helps distribute weight)
    • Waist belt (optional)

Make sure you communicate with your kids as well. Most of the ability to increase or decrease their load lies with them.

  • Encourage kids to use their locker or desk throughout the day instead of carrying all their books at once.
  • Make sure kids don’t tote unnecessary items
    • Laptops, cellphones, and video games
    • Regular, weekly cleanings can remove unneeded supplies and old papers
      • You may also find important papers they forgot to show you.
  • Encourage kids to bring home only the books needed for homework or studying each night.
  • Develop a homework plan for the week
    • A heavier pack on Friday might mean that a child is delaying homework until the weekend.
  • Use all the compartments
    • Put heavier items, such as textbooks, closest to the center of the back.

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