Backpack Safety

Overloaded backpacks pose painful burden

For many students the expression “carrying a heavy load” has taken on new meaning – one that could lead to permanent spinal column damage.

The problem, according to Dr. Greg Chappell of Northern Michigan Health in Acme, MI and Dr. Marvin T. Arnsdorff, co-founder of the Charleston, SC-based Backpack Safety America, is the overloaded and improperly carried backpacks shouldered by thousands of school children as they trudge their way to and from school.

“Youngsters are lurched forward like peasants,” Dr. Chappell said. “Some of these children are carrying nearly 40 pounds of books and other things in their packs.The typical backpack might contain textbooks, binders, calculators, personal computers, lunch boxes, a change of clothing, sports equipment, cosmetics, yo-yos, electronic games and more.”

And it is not just the weight alone that concerns Dr. Chappell. “Often the backpacks are swung over one shoulder, or are just not very well balanced. That”s really cause for worry. I am seeing a growing concern among parents and teachers about the improper use of backpacks and the relatively scarce amount of instructional and preventative information available to young people.”

“The purpose of Backpack Safety America! is to call attention to a problem that is only going to get worse unless we correct it in the children’s early school years,” Dr. Chappell said. “Our goal, is to help educate children at an early age to do everyday activities in biomechanically correct ways so they don’t end up with spinal or repetitive stress injuries later in life.”

“The old adage ‘as the twig is bent, so grows the tree’ comes to mind. Common sense tells us that a heavy load, distributed improperly or unevenly, day after day, is indeed going to cause stress to a growing spinal column,” Dr. Chappell said.

Dr. Chappell is also seeing more and more patients at a younger age, to grade school level, who are suffering non-traumatic back problems. This spinal stress can result in pain and, even in the absence of symptoms, can effect vital functions of the body. Irritation to delicate nerve fibers within the spinal column can adversely effect overall health and resistance to sickness and disease. In addition, interference to proper nerve function can lead to decreased performance in school and sports as well as contributing to scoliosis and attention deficit.

“Right now there’s really nobody saying that it’s cool and smart to carry a backpack correctly,” Dr. Chappell said. “We really need to tell children at a very early age that it’s cool and smart to take care of themselves. It could eliminate a lot of pain and grief later in life. Billions of dollars in workers compensation are lost every year due to back, neck and repetitive stress injuries. Most of those are because of bad habits learned in childhood, habits than can be prevented by education at an early age.”


  • Make sure the backpack is sturdy and appropriately sized. Some manufacturers offer special child-sized versions for children ages 5 to 10. These packs weigh less than a pound and have shorter back lengths and widths so they do not slip around on the back.
  • Consider more than looks when choosing a backpack. An ill-fitting pack can cause back pain, muscle strain or nerve irritation. You want to have padded shoulder straps to avoid pressure on the nerves around the shoulders and armpits. Some backpacks have waist straps designed to stabilize the load. These should be used whenever possible.
  • The proper maximum weight for loaded backpacks should not exceed 15 percent of the child’s body weight. For example, an 80-pound child should not carry more than 12 pounds in a pack. If the pack forces the carrier to bend forward, it is overloaded.
  • In loading, it is obvious that excessive backpack weight can cause problems. Prioritizing the pack’s content is very important. Avoid loading unnecessary items. It is important to balance the weight of the contents or the body will shift into unnatural postures to compensate.
  • Often ignored is the act of lifting and positioning the backpack. Lifting 20 pounds improperly can cause damage. Follow these simple steps: 1) Face the backpack before you lift it. 2) Bend at the knees. 3) Using both hands, check the weight of the pack. 4) Lift with your legs, not your back. 5) Carefully put one should strap on at a time; never sling the pack onto one shoulder.
  • Use both shoulder straps. Make them snug but not too tight. Carrying the backpack on one shoulder, while fashionable, can cause long term neck, shoulder, back and postural problems.

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