Is Your Child’s Backpack Making the Grade?

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Conshohocken Physical Therapy gives the A-B-C's of Smart Backpack Use and avoiding back pain.

Improper backpack use can cause injury, especially to children with young, growing muscles and joints.

While a backpack is still one of the best ways to tote homework, an overloaded or improperly worn backpack gets a failing grade, according to the therapists at Conshohocken Physical Therapy.

Improper backpack use can cause injury, especially to children with young, growing muscles and joints. A recent study found that 55 percent of the children surveyed carried backpack loads heavier than 15 percent of their body weight, the maximum safe weight for children recommended by most experts.

"It is troubling to see young children carrying backpacks that are too heavy. Especially, since musculoskeletal systems are so vulnerable during adolescent years," said Dr. Desirea D. Caucci, PT, DPT of Conshohocken Physical Therapy.

Injury can occur when a child, in trying to adapt to a heavy load, uses harmful postures such as arching the back, leaning forward or, if only one strap is used, leaning to one side. According to Dr. Caucci, these postural adaptations can cause spinal compression and/or improper alignment, and may hamper the proper functioning of the disks between the vertebrae that provide shock absorption. A too-heavy load also causes muscles and soft tissues of the back to work harder, leading to strain and fatigue. This leaves the back more vulnerable to injury. A heavy load may also cause stress or compression to the shoulders and arms. When nerves are compressed, the child may experience tingling or numbness in the arms.

Worn correctly and not overloaded, a backpack is supported by some of the strongest muscles in the body: the back and abdominal muscles. These muscle groups work together to stabilize the trunk and hold the body in proper postural alignment.

Conshohocken Physical Therapy recommends the following tips for safe backpack use and avoiding back pain:

  •     Wear both straps. Using only one strap, even with backpacks that have one strap that runs across the body, causes one shoulder to bear the weight of the bag. By wearing both shoulder straps, the weight of the pack is better distributed, and a symmetrical posture is promoted. A backpack that has padded, contoured shoulder straps will also help reduce pressure on the chest and shoulders.
  •     Make sure the backpack fits. It is important to pay close attention to the way a backpack is positioned on the back, and the size of the backpack should match the size of the child. Shoulder straps should fit comfortably on the shoulder and under the arms, so that the arms can move freely. The bottom of the pack should rest in the contour of the lower back. The pack should "sit" evenly in the middle of the back, not "sag down" toward the buttocks.

Conshohocken Physical Therapy recommends the following features when selecting a backpack:

  •     A padded back to reduce pressure on the back and prevent the pack's contents from digging into the child's back;
  •     A waist belt to help distribute some of the load to the pelvis;
  •     Compression straps on the sides or bottom of the backpack that, when tightened, compress the contents of the backpack and stabilize the articles; and
  •     Reflective material so that the child is visible to drivers at night.

So how do you make sure that your child stays injury-free? Parents should look for the following signs that the backpack is too heavy:

  •     Pain when wearing the backpack
  •     Tingling or numbness in the arms
  •     Red marks on the shoulders

Physical therapists are highly-educated, licensed health care professionals who can help patients reduce pain and improve or restore – in many cases without expensive surgery or the side effects of prescription medications.

Conshohocken Physical Therapy (CPT) is a privately practice delivering high quality, evidence-based care to improve their patients’ quality of life. They have been voted the “Best Physical Therapy Practice in Montgomery County, PA,” for three consecutive years (2008, 2009 and 2010). Owner, Dr. Desirea D. Caucci, PT, DPT, has been named one of the top 3 Physical Therapists in the nation by Advance Magazine (2008) and has been honored as the national winner of the Dorland Health People Award for Physical Therapy (2010). They have also created a breakthrough iPad application for pain prevention - “Motion Doctor”. Their mission is to promote physical therapy on a grand scale and make a positive impact, both personally and therapeutically, on every person who enters the office. For more information please call 610-291-6423 or visit


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Robert Caucci

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