Whether it’s lugging a backpack stuffed with heavy textbooks or toting a tuba in the marching band, your kids probably put their backs to the test at school.
Here's what you need to know to keep back pain at bay.
Features to look for in a backpack
You can help your kids avoid back problems by encouraging back-healthy habits, starting with shopping for a new backpack:
- Pick lightweight materials. You don’t want the backpack itself to be any heavier than necessary, so cross leather off your list. If you have trouble finding what you need, check with online retailers such as Lands End or an outdoor-oriented retailer such as REI for lightweight—but sturdy—options.
- Have your child try it out. Make sure the backpack is a good fit. When loaded up, the top of the backpack should extend higher than the shoulders, and the bottom should be above the waist. Those sagging backpacks you may have noticed some kids wearing can lead to back stress.
- Check the padding. Look for shoulder straps that are wide, padded, and adjustable. Hard, narrow straps can cut into your child’s shoulders, leading to tingling or numbness in the arms and hands. Some larger backpacks have waist or chest straps, which provide extra support. The back of the backpack, where it will be against your child’s back, should also be padded.
- Look for compartments. Having separate sections for different items can keep the backpack’s weight from shifting, which could throw your child off balance. Compartments can also help kids organize their belongings, reducing the tendency to throw everything in the main section of the backpack, adding to the weight.
- Don’t overdo it. Buy a backpack large enough for the necessities, but not too big. Extra space in the backpack may tempt your young pack rat to fill it up with unneeded items, adding to the weight.
You may be thinking a rolling backpack would solve all these problems, but hold off on buying one until you check with your kids’ school. Rolling backpacks are banned in some schools because they can be a tripping hazard. There are other downsides: they’re tough to use on stairs, they may be not fit in a locker, and the wheels don’t roll well in snow.
Getting the most out of your backpack
Recommendations vary on how much weight in a backpack is too much, but the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons says it shouldn’t be more than 20% of your child’s weight. The ideal weight is no more than 10%. For a 60-pound child, 10% of body weight works out to 6 pounds, while 20% would be 12 pounds. You can test the weight on your bathroom scale.
Try these other tips for back safety:
- Get a good fit. Make sure the straps are tightened so the backpack is close to your child’s body without being uncomfortable. If the backpack sways as your child walks, it will cause increased stress on the back.
- Pack it right. The heaviest items go in the backpack first, so the weight is lower and close to the body.
- Easy does it. Show your kids how to lift the backpack using the legs while keeping the weight close to your body. Emphasize that the body should be straight—not bent at the waist or twisted—when putting on the backpack.
- Use both straps. There’s a good reason backpacks have two straps—it distributes the weight equally without straining one side of the body. The backpack should never be slung over one shoulder.
- For band instruments or laptops, kids may find it more comfortable to use a separate bag or a case with a handle.
If your kids struggle to put on their backpacks, it’s likely they’re carrying too much weight. Red marks on the shoulders; headaches or aches in the neck, shoulders, or back; leaning forward when carrying the pack; or worsening posture overall are other signs to watch for.
Core exercises can help band members build strength
For students in marching band, carrying a heavy backpack or musical instrument is just one potential cause of back and neck pain.
Hours spent practicing marching routines, topped off by performances at games and in parades, make band more of a workout than you may have expected. Heavy musical instruments, particularly drums, add to the strain.
Encourage your child to stay fit, with an emphasis on developing core strength, to minimize back strain. Exercises that strengthen the core include abdominal crunches and planks.
Wearing supportive, well-cushioned shoes can also ease back discomfort. Skip the over-the-counter back braces, though. Your child should only use a back brace prescribed by a doctor.
When to see a doctor
If your child has minor back pain for a day or two, you probably don’t need to worry. Make sure your kids know to tell you, though, if their headaches and back, neck, or shoulder pain don’t go away.
Severe or persistent back, neck, or shoulder pain is not normal in children, and your child should see a doctor rather than wait and see how the situation develops.