Protect your child from back problems

Almost half of secondary-school kids get back pain – and it can be made worse by overloaded and improperly-worn backpacks…

Taking the strain...

School children are incomplete without their trusty rucksack, and it’s one of the most convenient ways to transport homework folders and textbooks – if it’s worn properly and not overloaded. But if your child has to pack it full of heavy books and then slings it over one shoulder she’s at increased risk of musculoskeletal injuries and back pain.

Studies carried out by the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy indicate that almost half of all children of secondary school age get occasional backache and that back pain in adolescence can mean youngsters are four times more likely to suffer it in adulthood. The situation isn’t helped by the fact that many children take little physical exercise to strengthen their muscles, and that the media age has them slumped in front of TVs and computers – not ideal for good posture.


A backpack that's too heavy also makes muscles work harder, leading to strain and fatigue, and making your child's neck, shoulders and back more vulnerable to injury.

Back injuries can occur if your child crams too much in her backpack – especially if she tries to compensate by arching her back, bending forward, twisting or leaning to one side. These postural adaptations can cause improper spinal alignment, which hampers functioning of the disks that provide shock absorption. A backpack that’s too heavy also makes muscles and soft tissue work harder, leading to strain and fatigue. This leaves the neck, shoulders, and back more vulnerable to injury.

Tips for safe backpack use

  • Choose a well-designed, comfortable backpack Look for a padded back; wide, padded shoulder straps (with additional hip and chest belts if possible, to transfer some of the weight to your child’s hips and torso; multiple compartments to better distribute the weight in the backpack, keep items secure and ease access to the contents; and reflective material to enhance visibility of the child to drivers at night.

  • Make sure she uses both straps Using only one strap causes one side of your child’s body to bear the majority of the weight of the backpack. By wearing two shoulder straps, the weight of the backpack is better distributed, and a well-aligned symmetrical posture is promoted.

  • Adjust the straps for easier use The shoulder straps should be adjusted to allow her to put on and take off the backpack without excessive twisting.

  • Position it properly It should rest evenly in the middle of your child’s back, where her muscles are strongest. The straps should not be too loose, and the backpack should not extend below her lower back.
  • Lighten the load Keep the load at 10-15% or less of your child’s bodyweight. Make sure she packs only those items that are required for the day, and places the heaviest items closest to the back. Speak to your child’s teacher if you feel she is having to carry too many heavy books to school each day.

  • Encourage activity Children who are active tend to have better muscle flexibility and strength, which makes it easier to carry a backpack and maintain a good posture. The Healthy Schools Programme recommends an hour of moderate physical activity every day.

  • Watch for warning signs that your child’s backpack may be too heavy, such as a change in posture, struggling to put it on or remove it, pain while using it and/or red marks on her shoulders.


Related links

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Chartered Society of Physiotherapists: Download its information pamphlet, Backs for the Future.

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