School's in Session—How Heavy is Too Heavy for a Backpack?

The American Occupational Therapy Association says six out of ten students 9 to 20 years of age reported chronic back pain related to backpacks.

Kate Byrne knows she's not doing her back any favors.

In her backpack, Byrne, a student, carries "books, lots and lots of books," she said. "I'm a humanities major."

Bryne isn't alone.

As students of all ages are now once again walking the halls of their respective schools, backpacks are overloaded, tugging at the straps.

"Overloaded backpacks will set you up for long-term back pain," said Dr. Bill Barrett, Chief Clinical Officer of ChiroCare in Shoreview, MN.

He has seen an increased amount of students—as well as young adults—coming to physicians with back and neck pain.

In many cases, Barrett says, the situation could have been resolved early on by the correct pack size and lightening the weight carried in school.

The American Occupational Therapy Association—a group of occupational therapists that help people extend their life through everyday activities—says on their website that “six out of ten students 9 to 20 years of age reported chronic back pain related to backpacks.”

Some adverse effects include: neck, back, shoulder, joint and muscle pain; disrupted and improper posture habits; poor circulation in the nerves around the area in contact with the straps of the backpack.

Although a student may not appear to have any symptoms of discomfort at the time, long-term problems are possible.

Barrett sends his message not only to students and their parents but to teachers as well. When a teacher is aware that a student is carrying a particularly heavy backpack, he said they should suggest to the student to split up the amount they carry at one time.

Byrne said she wasn't concerned when shown the AOTA statistics about overloaded backpacks.

“As a smaller person it wouldn’t be functional,” she said. “I don’t want Dora (the Explorer) on my back.”

If you, your child, or student are experiencing back pain or soreness of the neck, Barrett said you should consult a physician.

Tips for back and neck pain prevention

  • Never carry more than 15 percent of your weight. For instance: a child who weighs 120 pounds should not carry more than 18 pounds.
  • Measure your back and buy the correct backpack size.
  • Keep heavy items close to your back.
  • Wear both shoulder straps, padded straps.
  • Adjust straps to correctly position the backpack.
  • If the backpack has a belt at the waist, use it.
  • Remove unnecessary items.
  • If you must carry heavy loads, consider a bag on wheels.

Sept. 21 is American Occupational Therapy Association’s National School Backpack Awareness Day.


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