A heavy backpack can seriously harm your child
Physician's Weekly
February 13, 2024
A heavy backpack can seriously harm your child

Since the beginning of the 2023-2024 academic year, I’ve seen a few school children between the ages of 7 and 16 for back, neck, and shoulder pain that was caused by wearing backpacks that were either too heavy or incorrectly worn.

When walking along a flat surface, a backpack that weighs 10 pounds, translates into a force of 72 pounds on a child’s spine. If that child climbs an incline of 20 degrees, the 10-pound backpack now places a force of 116 pounds on their spine.

Many children are carrying around backpacks which are equivalent to 30-40% of their body weight. A backpack weight far exceeding the weight that their developing and malleable musculoskeletal systems should be subjected to.

Disturbingly, most of these children carry around their overweight backpacks for most of their school life, extending over 12 years and more. Often resulting in health consequences that last a lifetime.

The backpack’s biomechanical impact on a child

Wearing a backpack alters a child’s posture and gait. The degree of alteration is almost always proportional to the weight of the backpack {and how it is carried). The heavier the backpack the more the child’s upper torso will be backwardly arched. To stay upright, and prevent themselves from falling back, the child reflexly bends forward at their hips and or their spine. Over time, this compensatory posture leads to changes in head-neck angles, shoulder symmetry, pelvic tilt, significant alterations in the spine’s natural curves, and protrusion of the abdomen. Girls are somewhat more predisposed than boys to the health consequences of lugging around a heavy backpack.

A backpack should not exceed 10% of a child’s weight. This means that a 70-pound child’s backpack should not exceed 7 pounds.
Adult students, i.e. college and university students over 18, can safely carry backpacks that weigh up to 20% of their body’s weight.

Items that may be found in a child’s backpack

• Textbooks
• Exercise books
• Pencil case
• Calculator
• Geometry set
• Laptop/ iPad
• Sporting/ PE clothing/ footwear
• Extra set of clothes
• Musical instrument
• Lunch container
• Snacks
• Water bottle
• Sanitary products (girls)
• Tissue
• Umbrella
• Hand sanitizer
• Other

Red flags that may indicate that your child’s backpack is too heavy

• The child often complains of pain – shoulders, back, neck, hips, knees, headaches.
• Poor posture when backpack worn.
• Weight of backpack exceeds 10% of child’s weight.
• The child needs help putting on or removing backpack.
• Without the backpack, poor posture is maintained.
• Child prefers to wear backpack over one shoulder.
• Indentation or discolouration of shoulder skin.
• Child reports weakness, numbness, and or tingling in their arms and or hands.

Some of the consequences of carrying around too heavy a backpack

• Pain – back, neck, shoulder, hip, and or knee
• Headaches
• Muscle spasm – neck, upper back, shoulders, hip
• Permanent spinal deformities – e.g. scoliosis and kyphosis
• Hunchback posture
• Weakness, numbness, and tingling in arms and hands
• Excessive fatigue
• One shoulder persistently held higher than the other
• Falls
• Onset of spinal arthritis in early adulthood.
• Herniated intervertebral disc.
• Reduced lung volume from a change in posture.

How to lessen the chances of backpack-related
medical complications

• A backpack and its contents should never exceed 10% of child’s weight.
• Backpack should be repacked daily, only carrying items needed for that day.
• Water bottle in the backpack should be empty.
• Backpack should never exceed the child’s shoulder width and should not extend more than 4 inches below the waist.
• There should be padding wherever the backpack touches the body.
• Backpack should always be worn over both shoulders.
• Backpack should be lightweight with wide padded shoulder straps.
• Straps should be appropriately adjusted.
• Backpacks with waist straps are preferred.
• Backpack should have multiple compartments so that its contents can be evenly distributed.
• The heaviest items should be stored in the middle of the backpack, close to the back
• Improve the fitness of the child by encouraging their participation in sports and discouraging sedentary behaviours (e.g. excessive use of electronic devices).
• A wheeled bag may be considered as an alternative.

Support from schools

Schools can go a long way in reducing the pain and suffering their students may experience as a result of wearing a backpack that is too heavy or inappropriately worn. Below are some suggestions:
• Have a backpack awareness day early in each term.
• Conduct essay competitions among students regarding the health consequences of wearing an overpacked or improperly worn backpack.
• Encourage backpack weigh-ins.
• Have posters placed around the school compound about the dos and don’ts of backpack-wearing.
• Encourage teachers, prefects, and monitors to inform students when they wear their backpacks improperly.
• Look for overpacked backpacks and children who are struggling with their backpacks.

Let us all do our part to ensure that we keep our children out of harm’s way in every way, every day.
Author: Dr. C. Malcolm Grant – Family Physician, c/o Family Care Clinic, Arnos Vale. Former tutor, Faculty of Medical Sciences, University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, Barbados. For appointments: clinic@familycaresvg.com, 1(784)570-9300, (Office), 1(784)455-0376 (WhatsApp)
Disclaimer: The information provided in the above article is for educational purposes only and does not substitute for professional medical advice. Please consult a medical professional or healthcare provider if you are seeking medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment. Dr. C. Malcolm Grant, Family Care Clinic or The Searchlight Newspaper, or their associates, respectively, are not liable for risks or issues associated with using or acting upon the information provided above.