Is your child complaining about back or neck pain? It could be their backpack.

It’s hard to believe that thousands of central Wisconsin students have been in school for months now with backpacks filled with assignments and books strapped to their backs. But is your child’s backpack a blessing or a burden?

Many of these convenient carryalls will lead to back and neck pain.

Even the best-fitting backpack can cause health issues if it’s too full. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons suggests people only carry 10 to 15 percent of their weight on their backs. These limits are critical to remember for younger children. Too much stress on growing bones may affect development.

  • A 40-pound child should carry six pounds or less.
  • A 150-pound high school cross-country runner should carry less than 22 pounds.

How people wear and take off their backpacks gives clues to the knapsack’s weight.

If the pack is too heavy, a person will:

  • Walk bent forward to balance the weight
  • Struggle to remove the pack
  • Complain about neck, back, or shoulder pain
  • Complain about numbness in the arms or legs

If you witness any of these actions, check the pack’s weight. It may be too heavy.

Check for fit and comfort.

If your child wears a backpack to school, keep these tips in mind so the pack doesn’t become a pain in your child’s neck.

  1. Is the backpack the right size for your child?
    To check, measure the distance from the base of the child’s neck between the shoulder blades to the top of the hips. The backpack should sit between those two points.
  2. Look at the straps.
    Wider straps reduce muscle strain. They disperse the weight evenly between the shoulders and back.
  3. Does the pack lay snug against the back?
    Backpacks need to have close contact with the back. A tilting backpack strains the back and the shoulders.
  4. Padded backpacks add comfort.
    The padding keeps the hard objects, such as books, from poking into the back.
  5. Pockets on the sides are best.
    Multiple storage compartments allow the wearer to distribute the weight throughout the pack. Pockets also allow access to pens, pencils, and other frequently used items.
  6. Look for supporting straps.
    Backpacks with hip and waist straps provide extra stability. This adds support when the backpack is loaded.
  7. Check for quality.
    Backpacks take a beating. They slide across gym floors, sit in the bottom of lockers, and get thrown in coat closets or mudrooms. A well-built backpack will last through the school year.

Here are a few things to check.

  • Zippers. Are they strong enough to close a full pack?
  • Buckles, snaps, and clasps. Are they strong and easy to fasten?
  • Seams. Are the seams reinforced and finished? (Turn the backpack inside out to check. Unfinished seams can unravel.)
  • Reflectors. Does the pack have enough? In winter, after-school activities may keep children in the building until dark. Reflectors on the backpack keep children visible in busy parking lots.

Pack it right to avoid injury.

Pack the heaviest items first, so they rest in the bottom and are carried closest to the back. Positioning the heaviest items near the hips also puts them near the strongest muscles in the body, reducing stress and strain on the rest of the body.

Encourage your child to use both shoulder straps. It may be cool for middle school students to sling their pack over one shoulder, but that throws the body’s balance off. The shoulder straps keep the weight distributed evenly across the back. Carrying a heavy backpack slung over one shoulder stresses the spine, neck, and shoulder muscles.

If one of the new experiences your child has this school year is back, neck, or shoulder pain, check the backpack.

If your child’s pain lasts longer than two weeks, make an appointment with an orthopedic provider.