From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Therapists Warn of Dangers of Heavy School Backpacks

Jennifer Anderson

Elementary, middle and high school students all over the country are going back to school in the next few days. Most will be carrying a backpack loaded with school supplies. It’s safe to say they won’t be thinking about back and neck pain, but that’s what they risk if the load is too heavy or the bag isn’t carried properly.

The American Occupational Therapy Association has named September 19 as National School Backpack Awareness Day and has scheduled community events on proper backpack ergonomics. The theme is, “Pack It Light, Wear It Right!” The events include “weigh-ins” of backpacks, and other events to raise awareness of ergonomically-sound ways to carry a school bag.


Studies show an overloaded backpack forces the child to compensate by leaning forward to balance the load, creating potential health problems if the backpack is over weighted and hanging too low.


The association points out that more than 40 million students in the United States carry school backpacks. More than 7,000 emergency room visits in 2001 were related to backpacks and book bags, and approximately half of those injuries occurred in children 5 to 14 years old.


As reported by United Press International, The American Physical Therapy Association and the American Pediatric Association advise students to:


  • Wear both straps. Wearing both straps distributes the weight load evenly so well aligned posture is encouraged and facilitated. Look for padded straps when shopping for a new backpack.
  • Watch body mechanics putting on and taking off the backpack. Avoid twisting and bending together at the waist. Swinging the weight to get the backpack on is a sign it is too heavy.
  • Make sure the load is appropriate to the body weight. Keep the load at 10-15 percent of the child’s body weight. If it is necessary to carry more books, try carrying them in front in the arms to balance the load on the spine.
  • Make sure the backpack is in the center of the back. Adjust the straps and use the middle waist belt if available to keep the backpack from hanging too low. It should rest between or below the shoulder blades. It should not go below the lumbar spine.

The association’s message to parents is to encourage more physical activity because active children tend to have better muscle flexibility and strength.


Sources: The American Occupational Therapy Association; United Press International