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Backpack Safety


The spinal column is made up of small bones (vertebrae) stacked on top of one another, creating the natural curves of the back. Between the vertebrae are flat, round, rubbery pads (intervertebral disks) that act as shock absorbers and allow the back to flex or bend. Muscles and ligaments connecting the vertebrae allow motion while providing support and stability for the spine and upper body. Each vertebra has an opening (foramen) in the center and these line up to form the spinal canal. Protected by the vertebrae, the spinal cord and other nerve roots travel through the spinal canal. Nerves branch out from the spinal column through vertebral openings, carrying messages between the brain and muscles. Facet joints align at the back of the spinal column, linking the vertebrae together and allowing for rotation and movement. Like all joints, cartilage covers the surface where facet joints meet.

The spine contains three segments: lumbar, thoracic and cervical. The lumbar spine consists of five vertebrae located in the lower back; lumbar vertebrae are larger because they carry more of the body's weight. The thoracic spine consists of 12 vertebrae and begins at the upper chest, extending to the middle back and connecting to the rib cage. The cervical spine includes the neck and consists of seven small vertebrae, beginning at the base of the skull and ending at the upper chest. Disks in the lumbar spine are composed of a thick outer ring of cartilage (annulus) and an inner gel-like substance (nucleus). In the cervical spine, disks are similar but smaller in size.


Backpacks are designed to distribute the weight of the load among some of the body's strongest muscles. They are a popular way for students of all ages to carry their books and supplies. Used correctly, backpacks can be a convenient and safe method for transporting the necessities of the school day.

Backpacks that are too heavy or are worn incorrectly can cause a variety of problems for people of any age, especially children and teenagers. An improperly used backpack can injure muscles and joints, leading to severe back, neck and shoulder pain, as well as posture problems. However, backpacks do not cause scoliosis. Scoliosis is often diagnosed during adolescence, but the condition's sideways curve of the spine is not a result of backpack use.

Choosing a Backpack

Look for a backpack that is appropriate for the size of your child, and includes two, wide, padded shoulder straps. The backpack should be lightweight, with a padded back and a waist strap. Consider a rolling backpack if the child will be carrying a heavy load. For some children, a crossbody bag can also be a good alternative.

Injury Prevention

Be sure your child always uses both shoulder straps to keep the weight of the backpack evenly distributed across the child's back. Tighten the straps to keep the load closer to the back. Organize the contents, packing heavier items low and towards the center. Pack light, including only essential items required for that day. Leave unnecessary items at home or at school, and if the backpack is too heavy, be sure to remove some objects before carrying it. Be sure your child bends at the knees when picking up the loaded backpack.

Tips for Parents

  • Do not ignore back pain in a child or teenager—Encourage your child or teenager to tell you about numbness, tingling, or discomfort in the arms or legs—these may indicate that the backpack fits poorly or that too much weight is being carried. If a child has back pain that does not improve, you may wish to consider keeping a second set of textbooks at home.
  • Lighten the load—Watch as your child puts the backpack on or takes it off to see if it's a struggle. If it seems to heavy, remove some of the books and have the child carry them separately to reduce weight.
  • Talk to the school—Discuss lightening the load with your child's teacher or school. Team up with other parents to encourage changes. Be sure the school allows students to stop at their lockers throughout the day to drop off or exchange heavier books.