Choose backpacks based on safety and function, not just looks - Cone Health

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Published on August 02, 2010

Choose backpacks based on safety and function, not just looks

Nothing says “back-to-school” quite as much as shopping for school supplies. Many parents and students will head out beginning on Friday to take advantage of sales tax-free weekend.

Along with the notebooks, paper, crayons and pencils, shoppers will be looking at backpacks. While students want their backpacks to say something about who they are, safety and function should be two primary considerations in making a purchase.

Younger students especially may be tempted to choose their backpacks based solely on the animated character or pop star displayed on the outside of the bag, rather than the structure and support the backpack provides.

“Although many factors can lead to back pain, some kids have backaches because they're lugging around their entire locker's worth of books, school supplies and assorted personal items all day long,” says Megan Kaufman, Pediatric Team Supervisor at Moses Cone Outpatient Rehabilitation Center.

Occupational and physical therapists agree that children should carry items totaling no more than 10 percent to 15 percent of their body weight in their backpacks, though many high school students find that their backpacks weigh at least 25 to 30 pounds.

Last year, more than 8,000 Americans visited emergency rooms as a result of backpack-related injuries. The spine is made of 33 bones called vertebrae, and between the vertebrae are discs that act as natural shock absorbers. When a heavy weight, such as a backpack filled with books, is incorrectly placed on the shoulders, the weight's force can pull the person backward. To compensate, a child may bend forward at the hips or arch the back, causing the spine to compress unnaturally.

When selecting a backpack for school, look for packs with wide, padded straps so the backpack does not place strain on the neck or shoulders. Backpacks with padded backs as well as waist straps help distribute the weight of the pack evenly across the back.

“Many packs feature multiple compartments that help students stay organized while they tote their books and papers from home to school and back again,” says Kaufman, adding that children should be shown how to organize their bags so that the heaviest objects are packed closer to their backs.

“Compared with shoulder bags, messenger bags, or purses, backpacks are better because the strongest muscles in the body — the back and the abdominal muscles — support the weight of the packs.”

Children also should remove unnecessary items from their backpacks to lighten the loads on their backs.

Packs should be positioned in the middle of the back and carried over both shoulders. Straps that are too loose allow the pack to hang too low, causing children to lean back, while straps that are too tight make it challenging for the backpack to be taken on and off.

Backpacks with wheels are also an option for students in schools where climbing stairs between classes is not an issue. Kaufman also stresses the importance of using proper techniques to lift backpacks onto the back.

“Face the pack and bend at the knees,” she says. “Use both hands and check the weight of the pack. Lift with the legs. Apply one shoulder strap and then the other.”

If the weight of the backpack causes the child to move forward to carry, the pack is overloaded.

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For more information on backpack safety, visit Backpack Safety America at

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