Public Release: 

Northeastern professor warns big backpacks cause big back pains

Large schoolbags are causing chronic back disorders in growing children

Northeastern University

(8-05-04) BOSTON, Mass.—Beyond the obvious academic stress that September brings, heading back to school may literally be a pain in the neck for students. The burden of a heavy backpack can eventually lead to the more serious problems of chronic back pain and scoliosis, according to NU physical therapy professor Mary Hickey. According to the American Physical Therapy Association, backpacks should weigh no more than 15 percent of the carriers' total body weight. However, Hickey recommends that backpacks weigh in at no more than a tenth of a child's body weight.

"Kids who use backpacks often use them incorrectly and to their physical detriment," she says. "Big bags can have a lasting physical impact on developing skeletal systems and posture."

Hickey conducted a research study on the physically damaging affects of heavy backpacks after witnessing her own children strain under the weight of their schoolbooks. About 70 percent of the middle school students in her experiment were lugging around a backpack that was harmful to their growing bodies. While small kids hauling around 25-pound backpacks is a common sight in elementary, middle and high school hallways, according to Hickey's computation, only a 200-pound person can safely carry a bag of this size.

"The most important thing for parents to know is that there are simple ways to prevent kids from permanently damaging their backs," Hickey explains. Hickey offers some advice for parents to keep in mind, especially while shopping for back-to-school gear:

  • As a rule, kids should never carry a bag that weighs more than 10% of their body weight. This rule applies to all students, no matter what age. "If your child is unable to stand up straight with the pack on, the load is too heavy," explains Hickey.
  • Remind your kids about the value of lockers. Reducing backpack poundage will prevent any serious back pain in the future.
  • The bigger the bag, the more stuff kids will cram into it. Purchase a smaller backpack that will only fit the bare necessities.
  • This will prevent kids from lugging around those leftovers from lunch, notes passed in math class, or half-melted chapsticks.
  • Periodically remind your child to clean out trash and remove old papers and homework.

School nurses can also lend a hand by encouraging kids to keep their bags light and warn them of the potential danger heavy backpack may cause their growing bodies. Librarians can also protect young spines by keeping a set of school textbooks on reserve to lighten the backpack load on the way to and from school.


Northeastern University, a private research institution located in Boston, Massachusetts, is a world leader in practice-oriented education. Building on its flagship cooperative education program, Northeastern links classroom learning with workplace experience and integrates professional preparation with study in the liberal arts and sciences. U.S. News & World Report, in its annual guide America's Best Colleges, 2003, ranked Northeastern University number one in the country among programs that "require or encourage students to apply what they're learning in the classroom out in the real world." In addition, Northeastern's career services was top ranked by Kaplan Newsweek's "Unofficial Insiders Guide to the 320 Most Interesting Colleges and Universities," 2003 edition. For more information, please visit

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