Margaret Matthews: Backpack safety |

Margaret Matthews: Backpack safety

When choosing a backpack, Margaret Matthews suggests to look for something that is lightweight, has good padding with two wide straps and back padding, a waist and/or chest strap, and to make sure it is not wider than whoever the backpack is for.
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School is back in session. Is your family safe with backpack use?

Backpacks that are worn improperly or too heavy can cause problems for children, teens, and adults. Incorrectly fitting backpacks can injure muscles and joints causing headaches — neck, shoulder, and back pain — and issues with posture.

I once found myself hiking down the trail to Hoyt’s crossing with a 20 pound backpack, a 32 pound toddler, a bag of life jackets and towels, and a dog. When I started off, I felt strong enough, but when my son also wanted to be carried I knew I had to make some adjustments to survive the trip.

I felt straps digging into my shoulders, my neck was pulling forward and my back hurt. I shifted the weight so that my heaviest load (my son) was in the middle of my back, and wore the backpack on my front.

I adjusted straps to the weight was distributed across my chest, back and hips, to take some weight off my shoulders and hold the weight close to my body. I clipped the dog leash to my pack so that I could walk with full use of my hands. Thankfully we all made it safely to and from the water and had a great time.

Follow these simple tips from the Orthopedic Pediatric Society of North America and the American Physical Therapy Association to feel your best when wearing a backpack. These guidelines can all be used for adults as well.

Features of the right pack

When looking for a backpack, be sure to look for these few things before purchasing:

Make sure it’s the right size. It should not be wider than your child, or longer than low back to shoulders.

Good padding with two wide straps and a padded back.

Waist and/or chest strap.


To prevent injury

Wear both straps. Wearing one strap may look “cool” to some, but it forces one shoulder to hike up and do all the work. Wearing two straps distributes the weight of your pack across shoulders and allows you to stand tall.

Backpack should be worn at the strongest mid-back muscles. Tighten shoulder straps so the weight is centered and closer to the spine. Using chest and waist straps spreads the weight to the hips and chest instead of just the shoulders alone.

The fit should allow your child to easier take the backpack on and off and allow free movement of the arms and shoulders.

Organize the load so the heaviest items are low and towards the center of the backpack.

Lighten the load. Keep the weight down to 10-15 percent of your child’s body weight. Carry only the items needed for that day, or consider a rolling backpack if the weight is over 15 percent of their body weight.

Tips for parents

Encourage your child to tell you about any numbness, tingling, or discomfort with wearing a backpack. It may be a sign of too much weight being carried or poor fit.

Watch your child put on and take off their backpack and notice if they are struggling.

Encourage your child to stop at a locker to change books so they aren’t carrying the heaviest books.

Do not ignore any back pain in your child.

If your child has persistent back pain consider buying another set of books to have at home, and see your medical professional for help.

Encourage regular exercise. A strong body with balanced muscles will have an easier time carrying a backpack.

Proper wear of backpacks and regular exercise will keep your family moving better and feeling better for life.

Margaret “Mags” Matthews, MPT specializes in manual therapy and neuromuscular re-education for orthopedic, neurological, and pelvic rehabilitation through the lifespan. She is co-owner of Fit for Life which provides regular community education seminars. Move better, Live better.

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