The Medical Minute: Heavy Backpacks Weigh on Child’s Health

It’s that time of year again. The new school year is about to start, and it is time to go back-to-school shopping with your child. You pick out the necessities: pencils, notebooks, and folders, and then it’s time to pick out the new backpack. There are so many different styles to choose from: bags with two shoulder straps, bags with one strap, bags with straps and waistbands, even bags with wheels. Which one is best for your child’s health?

In this edition of the Medical Minute, Douglas Armstrong, M.D., an orthopedic specialist at Penn State Hershey Medical Center, has the answer.

A child carrying a heavy backpack has always been a parent’s worry, especially in terms of spine health. Armstrong recommends that elementary school children ages eight to ten should only carry no more than 10-15 percent of their body weight in their backpacks. While weight can be a concern, though, he explains that even though backpacks can be heavy, that is not the most important concern.

“Children are at a higher risk for spine problems based on how they carry a backpack, pick it up, and put it on, not from how much weight is inside,” said Armstrong.

Children can avoid back pain by: 1) evenly distributing the load, 2) keeping the backpack close to the body and bending at the knees while picking it up and 3) use both straps while wearing the backpack and maintaining it centered on the body.

“Two straps are always better than one because they keep the backpack near the child’s center of gravity,” he said. “However, it is okay to carry light items in a satchel or bag with one strap over the shoulder.”

Another concern parents may have is that backpacks may cause children to develop scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of the spine, usually appearing during late childhood or adolescence. Armstrong says parents can rest easy on this point: Backpacks don’t cause deformity, he says.

Ultimately, Armstrong believes that while it’s important to ensure that a child is wearing their backpack correctly, parents don’t need to be too concerned.

“I don’t believe that backpacks really do much to harm kids when used properly,” he said. “They are not worn for extensive periods of time. Kids put them on to go to school, get on the bus, and then take them off when they arrive. It is just like any other piece of equipment.”

Dr. Armstrong’s Tips for a Healthy Back and Spine:

1. Participate in regular daily aerobic exercise.

2. Practice good posture, keeping the core muscles strong.

3. Limit the amount of stress in your life.

4. Eat a healthy diet, with a balance of fruits and vegetables.

For more information visit the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons website,

The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature brought to you by Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Articles feature the expertise of Penn State Hershey faculty physicians and staff and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

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