7 back-saving schoolbag tricks

Heavy school backpacks can be harmful to developing spines, joints and muscles, yet a few simple tweaks to packing and strap position can increase comfort and reduce injury risk.

If you’re a parent watching your little (or big) one waddle off for the new school year with a bulging backpack, you’re right to be concerned. Even older kids can suffer from lugging a bag full of books, sports gear, a drink bottle and laptop, especially since their musculoskeletal systems are still developing. In fact, children should be carrying a maximum of 10 per cent of their body weight on their backs, according to research published in the Applied Ergonomics journal. For a child weighing 40kg, that’s 4kg, which can be easily exceeded between common items such as a lunchbox and drink bottle, sports shoes and books or a tablet or laptop. 

But gross weight is not the only factor in whether a child’s regular schoolbag carrying will result in damage or pain. Distribution of carried weight also impacts the effects on the back particularly. How you pack the bag (e.g. placing heavier items at the bottom) and how the straps are adjusted can markedly change the load on respective body parts. Our child and adolescent physios and chiros have put together some simple tips to reduce the strain on the developing spine, joints and muscles that may be caused by schoolbags. 

  1.  Choose a backpack rather than a duffle or shoulder bag.
  2. Invest in a backpack with wide, padded shoulder straps and ensure that the bag is no wider than the child’s chest.
  3. Adjust the bag before use by shortening straps until the bottom of the bag sits slightly above the child’s waist.
  4. Adjust waist straps so that they are firm when closed and help to support the bag’s weight.
  5. Remind the child to use both shoulder straps at all times (rather than wearing the bag on one shoulder).
  6. Keep packed weight at or below 10 per cent of a child’s body weight (e.g. for a child weighing 40kg, the bag should be no more than 4kg).
  7. When packing, place heaviest items in the bottom towards the back and lighter items towards the top and front.

If your child or teen is suffering from joint or muscle pain or movement changes or limitations, consider an assessment by a physiotherapist experienced in working with children and adolescents such as the practitioners in our paediatric division.

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