A neurosurgeon asks: Is your child’s backpack hurting her spine?

By | November 26, 2019

Running late for school in the morning.


You yell upstairs to your daughter, “Hurry up.”

While she’s slipping on her sneakers and hustling out the door, you grab her backpack from the chair in the dining room. “Wow,” you think. “That’s heavy.”

Even when she’s soaking wet, your daughter weighs all of seventy pounds. You wonder, “Is that backpack too heavy for her? Can it be damaging her spine?”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that the weight of a child’s backpack be less than 10 to 20 percent of her body weight.

More recent studies, using computer models have further elucidated the forces placed upon the spine by a heavy load. These models took the spine’s natural curves, called lordosis and kyphosis, into account. The spine is somewhat “S” shaped if viewed from the side. The forces of a backpack are magnified by this curvature.

The forces on your child’s spine are multiplied further by the postural change that occurs when she is forced to carry a heavy load. Her shoulders hunch and roll forward as the weight pulls her down and backwards.

Based on these studies, 20 percent of body weight may be too heavy for a child’s backpack. 15 percent is a more reasonable upper limit. So your 70-pound daughter’s backpack should weigh less than 11 pounds. It probably weighs more than that: The average textbook weighs more than three pounds.

What should you do?

  1. Parents should insist that, wherever possible, electronic books be used.
  2. Pack only what is necessary.
  3. Wear and tighten both straps of the backpack to distribute weight evenly and keep the weight closer to the spine.
  4. Pay attention to your child’s posture: Ears above her shoulders. Shoulders back, chest open, and spine straight.
  5. Proper lifting technique. Bend at the knees, not at the waist.
  6. Use lockers to avoid carrying too many things at once.
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Marc Arginteanu is a neurosurgeon.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com