Last year, my daughter complained to me about back pain. I wasn’t sure what was causing her discomfort until one day when I had to lift her school backpack out of my car. I almost threw my own back out.
I couldn’t believe how heavy it was. It weighed 20 pounds, and my daughter weighed 80 pounds.
Carrying a heavy backpack can be a source of low-level trauma leading to shoulder, neck and back pain in children. This is especially true for those school kids in middle and high school who have neither lockers nor desks to store their books in during the school day.
Experts recommend that children carry backpacks that weigh 10 percent or less of their body weight and no more than 15 percent.
The way a backpack is carried may contribute to the problem. Some kids wear their packs over only one shoulder, often because it’s “cool” or just plain easier. That causes them to walk unbalanced, causing abnormal stresses on their young developing spines.
A heavy backpack may make a bicycle rider top-heavy and less stable on the bike, potentially leading to accidental injuries.
A good backpack should have the following features:
– Lightweight construction
– Two wide, padded shoulder straps
– A padded back, for comfort and injury protection
– A waist belt and multiple compartments to distribute weight more evenly
We as parents need to be aware of this potential problem and be proactive in helping our children make best use of their backpacks.
Children should be taught to pick up their bags properly, by bending at the knees before lifting and using both hands.
Keeping straps tight will help with proper fit.
Remind children to use all of the backpack’s compartments, putting the heaviest items — such as textbooks — near the center of the back. They should not to carry around unnecessary personal items.
Also, take advantage of using available online books that don’t have to be carried around.
If your child continues to have back pain even after making the above adjustments, or has numbness, weakness or tingling in the arms or legs, consult with your doctor.
– Terry Hollenbeck, M.D., is an urgent-care physician at Palo Alto Medical Foundation Santa Cruz in Scotts Valley. Readers can view his previous columns on his website,, or email him at [email protected]. Information in this column is not intended to replace advice from your own health care professional. For any medical concern, consult your own doctor.

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