Chiropractic + Naturopathic Doctor

Lightening the Load: Tips for Backpack Safety

By Dr. Dan Yaron DC   

Features Clinical Patient Care

Ongoing research provides DCs with information to help parents decide.

Each year as children head back to school, the issue of backpack safety creeps into parents’ minds. Many parents wonder if there is a connection between their child’s backpack and proper spinal development, and if so, is there anything they can do to help reduce their child’s risk of back pain or injury?

Practising correct back form is an important consideration for everyone. Medical studies show that three in four adolescents have experienced some form of back pain1, and that children who have back pain are at increased risk of having back pain as adults.2


There has been a fair amount of research conducted in this area, and yet there remains some debate. Some studies conclude a definite relationship between carrying heavy loads and back pain, while others downplay the correlation.1,2,3 This creates a dilemma for concerned parents to make informed decisions relating to their children’s use of backpacks. While long-term studies are still underway, the safest approach is to take proper precautions to minimize potential risk.
As a chiropractor, I see many people – young and old – who suffer from back pain and injuries. By far, the majority of these problems result from the effects of poor posture adding up over time. And a heavy backpack load is certainly something that can negatively impact our posture.4

When carrying a heavy load in a backpack without proper support, the body is forced to make adjustments, often incorrectly, to compensate for this weight. The most common postural adaptations include stooping forward, rounding of the shoulders, as well as changes in neck alignment. A child’s ability to breathe can be compromised by a heavy backpack.5 Compression of the nerves to the arms causing pain, numbness and tingling, has also been shown to result from the carrying of heavy loads and the poor fit and design of some shoulder straps.6

Research has led to suggested guidelines on good backpack design, the weight limits that should be carried by an individual, as well as the manner in which this weight is best carried.

When selecting a backpack, make sure that it is the right size for the individual, extending from the shoulder level to around waist level. Look for one that provides proper support. A well-padded back to prevent objects from digging into the body, a waist strap to distribute weight onto hips and off of the spine and shoulders, along with well-padded, contoured shoulder straps for comfort and to prevent nerve compression, are all important features. Choose a backpack made of lightweight material (canvas bags are lighter than leather bags) with numerous pockets and compartments to keep objects from shifting.

A packed backpack should weigh less than 10 per cent of the carrier’s body weight (for kids JK-8); older individuals can carry up to 15 per cent of their body weight.7 Pack the heaviest items closest to the back. If the heaviest items are packed further away, this throws out the individual's centre of gravity and may increase postural, gait and mobility problems. Carry only what is necessary in the backpack and each night, clean out the backpack of unnecessary items.

When fitted correctly, a backpack should contour snugly to the back, rather than hang off the shoulders. The shoulder straps should be adjusted so that the bottom of the backpack is just above the waist, not slung low over the buttocks.

When lifting a backpack to put it on, bend at the knees using the legs to lift it up, not at the waist. Lift the pack with both hands and hold it close to the body. Slip one arm through one shoulder strap, and then the other. It is important to wear both shoulder straps.

The primary users of backpacks, growing children, are at particular risk for the development of poor postural habits and long-term problems. With research ongoing, it’s important for parents and kids to consider safety when choosing, packing and using a backpack.•

1. Spine. 2003 May 1;28(9):922-30.
2. Clinical Orthopaedics & Related Research, 2003 Apr;(409):78-84.
3. Journal of Back & Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation, 2006;19(1):25-33.
4. Work. 2001;16(2):123-129.
5. Ergonomics. 2004 Feb 26;47(3):318-23.
6.  Clinical Orthopaedics & Related Research, 2006 Nov;452:205-9.
7. Spine, 2004 Oct 1; 29(19):2184-90.

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