Don’t Bear the Brunt of a Heavy Backpack

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Don’t Bear the Brunt of a Heavy Backpack

September 21 is National School Backpack Awareness Day. With students going back to school, it couldn’t come at a better time. As demands on students increase in terms of academic work and extracurricular activities, students carry more and more weight to school in backpacks and duffel bags with each passing year. Unfortunately, the increasing weight can lead to lifelong pain and physical damage for students.

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, in 2007 hospitals, clinics, and doctor’s offices treated over 2,000 injuries that could be directly related to backpacks. For many of the 79 million students in the United States, incorrect backpack loading, lifting, and carrying can lead to pinched nerves, curvatures of the spine, and overall back pain. The University of California reported in 2004 the results of a study that concluded that 64% of students 11-15 reported pain directly related to their backpacks. Over 21% claimed that the pain from backpack wearing continued for 6 months or more.

The general guideline for backpack weight is that it should be no more than 10% of the overall weight of the student. For the average 6th grader, a student who on average weighs 90 pounds, this would translate to a backpack no heavier than 9 pounds. Unfortunately, the New York Times reported in 2009 that the average American 6th grader carried a backpack that averaged at least 18 pounds. The problem doesn’t stop there. A study from Boston University purports that 85% of students they surveyed reported muscle pain related to their backpack weight.

There are a few ways to help reduce the strain a student might feel from their backpack. First and foremost, a student should never carry anything that is unnecessary in their backpacks. When bringing materials home and when heading back to school, parents and students should make sure that the only things being carried back and forth are necessary for that day’s work. With the materials that do need to be carried, load the heavier objects nearer to the student’s back and make sure the items will not shift when carried. A backpack that is difficult to close is too heavy. Take some things out and hand carry one or two things or invest in a rolling backpack if it is allowed.

The way that you wear a backpack can also lessen the strain. Backpacks should always be worn on both shoulders. Especially for students with already-heavy books, single shoulder carries or messenger bags are discouraged. These tend to put unnecessary strain on one shoulder to bear the brunt of the weight. Always choose a backpack with padded shoulder straps to help distribute the weight over a larger portion of the shoulder. Narrow or flimsy shoulder straps can lead to pinched nerves, tingling arms and hands, and bruises. A well-fitted backpack sits snugly against the wearer’s back with the top resting against the shoulders and the bottom in the curve of the lower back. Backpacks that sag or are too large or small can increase the strain from a heavy load.

For more information on backpack safety, visit the American Occupational Therapy Association at


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