Lighten the Load: Health Effects of Heavy School Bags

A child carries a heavy backpack up a flight of stairs at school.The new school year is in full swing and all those shiny new school supplies are starting to take a toll on shoulders and backs. Despite their ability to help keep kids organized, a heavy backpack can lead to shoulder and back problems. According to Dr. David Siambanes, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital, a backpack loaded with dozens of textbooks could be causing real harm.

Kids Today

Today, schools often don’t have enough lockers for all students, if they have lockers at all. Some schools implement block scheduling, which doesn’t allow enough time to exchange books between classes. Additionally, some schools have started using more online content or have the ability to give students two sets of books. Dr. Siambanes conducted a study involving approximately 3,500 students, ages 11 to 15. His study found that 41 percent of students reported back pain while carrying backpacks. Eighty-seven percent of those who experienced pain reported it as bad or very bad. Only 16 percent of those students reported their pain to their doctor.

Carrying a heavy load can:

  • Distort the natural curves in the middle and lower backs, causing muscle strain and irritation to the spine joints and the rib cage
  • Lead to rounding of the shoulders
  • Cause a child to lean forward, reducing balance and making it easier to fall
  • Pull on neck muscles, contributing to headache, shoulder pain, lower back pain and/or neck and arm pain

Here’s how you might lighten the load:

  • Check your child’s backpack before going to school and remove unnecessary items that might add to the weight. Many articles suggest limiting the backpack weight to 10-15 percent of the child’s body weight.
  • Help your child plan their classes so they can easily get to their locker a few times a day.
  • Make sure backpacks are worn properly. Adjust the wide, padded straps of their backpack so they're as close to the body as possible. Backpacks should be worn on both shoulder and straps should be at equal levels and use of the waist strap provides extra support.
  • Consider a rolling backpack, if approved by your child’s school.
  • Help your child avoid walking long distances by dropping them off at the bus stop or teaming up with other parents to carpool.
  • Talk to your child’s physician about obtaining a "prescription" for two sets of books, enabling them to keep one set at home and the other at school.

When it comes to orthopedic problems in children, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon provides a level of expertise that’s important in the growing and developing child. Your pediatrician is considered a member of our integral BayCare orthopedic team. For referral to a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, call (813) 870-4747.