Take a Weight off Kids’ Shoulders: Backpack Safety Tips

Now that children and teenagers are back in the classroom, many have dusted off their trusty backpacks or plan to buy a new one. As in years past, many parents are likely to be surprised by how much kids cram into their backpack and how heavy it becomes. Pediatric orthopedic surgeons at Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) have advice for parents and students when choosing and using a backpack to avoid injury.

“With a focus on getting back in the classroom and returning to ‘normal,’ it’s easy to overlook possible injuries caused by everyday school supplies,” says Emily Dodwell, MD, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) and spokesperson for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. “Backpacks might not seem that high on the list of safety hazards for children, but if too heavy or worn improperly, they can cause pain or injury to muscles and joints.”

It is not unusual for John Blanco, MD, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at HSS Long Island in Uniondale, to see more children and teenagers with back or shoulder pain around the start of the school year. The culprit is often a heavy backpack.

“In addition to being concerned about their child’s pain, some parents worry that carrying a heavy backpack every day at school could lead to scoliosis,” Dr. Blanco says. Although lugging around a heavy backpack or wearing it incorrectly could lead to sore muscles, he emphasizes that there is no data to indicate that it causes scoliosis, a hunchback or any long-term damage.

However, all complaints of pain or discomfort should be taken seriously, the doctors say. If a child appears to be struggling with a backpack, Dr. Blanco advises parents to look inside it. Chances are, something can be removed to make it lighter. From toys to video games to athletic footwear they don’t use every day, many young people are carrying around items they don’t need.

The American Academy of Pediatrics advises that backpacks should weigh no more than 10 to 20 percent of a child’s body weight. “It’s not uncommon for students to lug around 30 pounds, which is usually too heavy based on their body weight,” Dr. Blanco says. “Most families have a scale at home and can use it to weigh the backpack and take out items that are not needed for the school day.”

Backpack Safety Tips

The experts offer additional recommendations when choosing and using a backpack:

• Select a sturdy backpack with wide, padded shoulder straps and a padded back. Padding makes it more comfortable to wear and protects the back from books and other items with sharp edges.

• The backpack should be worn on both shoulders. Students should avoid slinging it over one shoulder. This helps to distribute the weight evenly without putting excessive stress on one side of the body.

• Students should be instructed to tighten the shoulder straps so the backpack is close to the body. This will put less strain on the back.

• Purchase a backpack with a strap that goes around the waist and encourage kids to use it. This helps distribute the weight more evenly. If a backpack sways from side to side, the body has to work harder to balance it.

• The backpack should be organized to make the best use of compartments. Heavier items should be packed closest to the middle of the bag.

• Consider a rolling backpack if the school allows it and the child is willing to use it. However, this may not be practical if the student takes the stairs throughout the day.

• Students should be encouraged to use the school locker for storage whenever possible.

• Children and teenagers should be instructed on how to pick up the backpack properly to avoid muscle strain. They should bend their knees when lifting or wearing a backpack. They should not bend at the waist.

Dr. Blanco notes that sooner or later, many kids get used to the weight of the backpack as their muscles grow stronger. But it’s no fun being in pain, and spending some time to think about backpack safety and engaging in good practices can prevent problems in the first place.

About HSS

HSS is the world’s leading academic medical center focused on musculoskeletal health. At its core is Hospital for Special Surgery, nationally ranked No. 1 in orthopedics (for the 12th consecutive year), No. 4 in rheumatology by U.S. News & World Report (2021-2022), and the best pediatric orthopedic hospital in NY, NJ and CT by U.S. News & World Report “Best Children’s Hospitals” list (2021-2022). HSS is ranked world #1 in orthopedics by Newsweek (2020-2021). Founded in 1863, the Hospital has the lowest complication and readmission rates in the nation for orthopedics, and among the lowest infection rates. HSS was the first in New York State to receive Magnet Recognition for Excellence in Nursing Service from the American Nurses Credentialing Center five consecutive times. The global standard total knee replacement was developed at HSS in 1969. An affiliate of Weill Cornell Medical College, HSS has a main campus in New York City and facilities in New Jersey, Connecticut and in the Long Island and Westchester County regions of New York State, as well as in Florida. In addition to patient care, HSS leads the field in research, innovation and education. The HSS Research Institute comprises 20 laboratories and 300 staff members focused on leading the advancement of musculoskeletal health through prevention of degeneration, tissue repair and tissue regeneration. The HSS Global Innovation Institute was formed in 2016 to realize the potential of new drugs, therapeutics and devices. The HSS Education Institute is a trusted leader in advancing musculoskeletal knowledge and research for physicians, nurses, allied health professionals, academic trainees, and consumers in more than 130 countries. The institution is collaborating with medical centers and other organizations to advance the quality and value of musculoskeletal care and to make world-class HSS care more widely accessible nationally and internationally. www.hss.edu.