Backpack Shopping 101: Tips to avoid a pain in the neck

Staff report

Think the books and school supplies that your child is carrying in a backpack slung haphazardly across one shoulder are harmless?

Think again.

Heavy loads carried by more than 79 million students across the U.S. can cause low back pain that often lasts through adulthood. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, in 2010 nearly 28,000 strains, sprains, dislocations, and fractures from backpacks were treated in hospital emergency rooms, physicians’ offices, and clinics.

“A child wearing a backpack incorrectly or that is too heavy can be contributing risk factors for discomfort, fatigue, muscle soreness, and musculoskeletal pain especially in the lower back,” said Karen Jacobs, clinical professor of occupational therapy at Boston University, and an expert on school ergonomics and healthy growth and development of school-age children.

Cheryl Boop and Brittney Cottman, occupational therapists at Madison Health in London, and Carolyn Prince at London City Schools agree.

“Many students kindergarten through grade 12 have backpacks that are too big and can get as heavy as 25-35 pounds by the time they reach high school. This issue can easily be addressed through education on how to properly choose, pack, lift, and carry a backpack in order to avoid unnecessary strain.”

Thousands of students, educators, parents, and health professionals will mark AOTA’s National School Backpack Awareness Day on Sept. 16 with backpack weigh-ins, backpack check-ups, activities, and special events.

Locally, occupational and physical therapists from Madison Health and LCS met with second graders at London Elementary School on Tuesday, Sept. 15, to talk about backpack awareness.

Boop, Cottman and Prince were joined by and Ryan Guthrie, certified occupational therapy assistant at LCS. Each student observed a demonstration on how to correctly carry backpacks and had the opportunity to have their backpacks checked by the therapy staff.

The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) urges parents and caregivers to consider the following when selecting a backpack this school year:

• Appropriate size. Make sure the height of the backpack extends from approximately 2 inches below the shoulder blades to waist level, or slightly above the waist.

• Shoulders. Backpacks should have well-padded shoulder straps that can be worn on both shoulders so when packed with books, the weight can be evenly balanced by the student.

• Hip belt. Backpacks with a hip or chest belt take some strain off sensitive neck and shoulder muscles and improve the student’s balance.

• Fit. Just as your child will try on clothes and shoes when back-to-school shopping, experts say it is important to try on backpacks, too. “The right fit should be your top criteria when selecting your child’s backpack,” says Jacobs. “If you order online, be sure that the seller has a return policy just in case the backpack is not quite the best fit for your child and needs to be exchanged.”

When school is back in session, check that the child’s backpack weighs no more than 10% of his or her body weight. If it weighs more, determine what supplies can stay at home or at school each day to lessen the load. If the backpack is still too heavy for the child, consider a book bag on wheels.

To learn more about National School Backpack Awareness Day, visit or contact your local occupational therapists at Madison Health at 740-845-7275.

Staff report