Not Just Balk Talk: School Backpack Safety

I would wager that 98% of the people whom I ask “How was your summer?” respond with the answer “Too fast”. It seems every year summer starts later, and goes faster. I think part of the problem is that as Vermonters, we cram 12 weeks worth of summer into 8 weeks!

And so here we are, looking at the month of August waning and the start of school right around the corner. My two daughters are long out of school, so I won’t be doing any clothes or school supply shopping. As a chiropractor, though, it’s incumbent upon me to think about the backpack issue. I still remember the time my daughter, who was in 4th grade, was wearing her backpack in the kitchen waiting for her ride to school, fell over backwards and could not get up. When I lifted her backpack it felt obscenely heavy. Reaching inside, I found two large rocks. I asked her why she had rocks in her backpack and she responded she had found them at school, and put them in her backpack because “they were pretty”. Now the really embarrassing part … I asked her when she found them she told me in September; this event happened in December. So, the chiropractor’s daughter was carrying rocks in her backpack for three months. One of the recommendations for backpack safety will address this issue!

Statistics show that 96% of children wear a backpack to school. While it is recommended that a student carry no more than 10% of their body weight in their backpack, with an absolute maximum of 15%, studies show that the average student carries 22%, and occasionally up to 38% of their body weight. 44% carried more than 15% of their body weight, and almost all students carry more than the recommended 10%. Girls typically carry a greater percentage of their body weight than boys. 28% of students have a waist strap on their backpack, but only 18% use it.

Not surprisingly, too much weight in a student’s backpack can predispose them to certain health issues, including neck pain, upper back and lower back pain, numbness and tingling in the arms and hands, headaches, dizziness, and even scoliosis. So let’s look at the guidelines for minimizing health risks when wearing a backpack to school.

1. Keep the weight of the backpack to between 5% and 10% of the student’s body weight.

2. Always purchase a backpack that has adequately padded straps, if possible two vertical compartments versus one, and preferably with a waist strap. Using a waist strap helps reduce the weight on the shoulders. Obviously, a student doesn’t need to use a waist strap to travel a short distance, e.g. from the school to the car in the parking lot. However, if they are walking to and from school, they should use the waist strap.

3. Always use both shoulder straps. One of the worst habits students have is to fling the pack over one shoulder, and typically, the same shoulder. This predictably increases the risk of scoliosis, especially when the pack is heavy.

4. If the backpack has two vertical compartments, place the largest items in the pocket closest to the spine (the body’s center of gravity), effectively minimizing the weight.

5. The bottom of the backpack should extend no further than 4 inches below the waist. This is accomplished by keeping the shoulder straps cinched tightly.

6. Periodically clean out and empty the backpack of any unnecessary items. This includes rocks …

7. Have your child practice picking up the backpack a few times by bending their knees and keeping their head up, and not bending from the waist.

Well, that’s it! It’s actually not complicated, and the rules are fairly common sense. We hope the review is useful.

Best wishes to everyone for a great end to summer, and safe re-entry to school!

Yours in health,

Crick and Crack

Dr. Thomas Turek grew up in New Jersey and attended Rutgers University and New York Chiropractic College. He has practiced in St. Johnsbury for 35 years, and lives in Waterford with his wife Dorothy. Dr. Travis Howard grew up in Rantoul, Ill. He was a medic in the Air Force for eight years. He attended University of Maryland European Division, Illinois State University, and Logan College of Chiropractic. He lives with his wife and three sons in Littleton, N.H. To submit a question for the column, email


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