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Fitness Q&A

Overloading Backpacks Can Cause Kids Pain and Strain

November 19, 2001|STEPHANIE OAKES

Question: My kids aren't even halfway through the school year, and already they're loaded down with books, spiral notebooks and who-knows-what-else they carry in their packs. Can carrying this weight be harmful to their health?



Answer: Backpacks may be the easiest way for your kids to carry everything they need for school (books, supplies and maybe a sandwich or two smashed into the bottom), but you're right to be concerned about the weight of the bags. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recently found that kids ages 5 to 18 made 13,000 visits to emergency rooms last year with backpack-related pain. Although most of the pain diagnosed in emergency rooms is related to muscle fatigue, the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons confirms that doctors frequently see children with overuse, strain and other backpack-related problems.

What can parents do? Start by weighing your child's backpack. Your children should carry no more than 20% of his or her body weight on their backs. Example: If your child weighs 70 pounds, the backpack should weigh no more than 14 pounds.

Check for these physical signs if you think the backpack is too heavy:

* Is your child leaning forward to counter the weight of the backpack?

* Does he or she have unusual posture while carrying the pack?

* Does your child bend to one side while walking with the pack?

* Does your child complain about back or shoulder aches?

* Has your child complained of numbness or weakness in the arms or legs?

To help prevent backpack-related problems:

* Use hip straps for heavier packs.

* Make sure the pack's straps are wide and padded.

* Use both straps--don't sling the pack over one shoulder.

* When picking up a pack, bend both knees to avoid straining your back.

* Always put the heaviest items closest to your back.

* Limit backpack use and time.

* Choose a backpack with multiple compartments to better distribute the weight of the load, and make sure it isn't wider than your child's torso.

* Try an alternative to the traditional backpack. Many students have started using backpacks with wheels (resembling a carry-on suitcase). This can help keep the pressure off your shoulders and lower lumbar.


Stephanie Oakes is the fitness correspondent for Discovery Health Channel and a health/fitness consultant. Send questions to She cannot respond to every query.

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