Heavy School Bags

Weighty school bags are more than just a pain in the neck (or back), they could cause long-term spinal damage
By Gillian Hurst

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It was with some alarm that I recently tried to fling my son’s school bag into the car boot. Nearly floored by the Herculean effort needed just to get the bag off the ground, I was staggered that my 11-year-old had been carrying what feels like the equivalent of a hefty first-grader on his back, without a word of complaint.
Take a moment to pick up your child’s bag. You may be surprised at the dead weight of it. A demanding curriculum means your child often lugs numerous books, for each subject, from one classroom to the next. Many children also carry extra bags packed with sports equipment, as well as bulky lunch boxes and drinks.
“Bearing such heavy loads can start a degenerative process in the spine, the consequences of which could last a lifetime,” warns Johannesburg-based chiropractor Marie Rosenberg. “Carrying a backpack or shoulder bag that is too heavy can cause functional scoliosis (an abnormal curvature of the spine), especially if the bag is carried on one shoulder. The uneven distribution of weight can result in poor posture, joint fatigue and pressure on the sacroiliac joint,” she says.
“To work out just how much weight is going through your child’s spine each time they pick up their school satchel, multiply the weight of the bag by 10,” advises Rosenberg. For example, a 4kg bag puts 40kg of weight on the spine, far too much for the average child to manage safely.
“Unfortunately, the children themselves are often part of the problem,” warns Cape Town-based physiotherapist Melanie Vogel. “Often the best bags, with their padded straps and added supports, are dismissed by children as being ‘uncool’. Peer pressure to have the ‘right’ brand on their back can lead to long-term damage and parents need to make their children aware of this from a young age.”
Biokineticist Amy Lichtenstein says she has treated quite a few cases of school bag injuries at her Johannesburg practice. “Muscles being used more often become shorter, tighter and overdeveloped, while the other side of the body is in a lengthened position, which creates an imbalance,” she says.
Safety tips
  • The type of school bag you choose makes a big difference. Shoulder bags are a definite no-no as children tend to carry them on one shoulder, causing strain, says Lichtenstein.
  • If your child insists on a backpack, make sure it has wide, padded straps that are worn over both shoulders, and a belly belt for extra support.
  • The best option is the wheelie bag, but even these are not perfect, as they become unwieldy when fully loaded and can catch on uneven terrain, causing muscle tears and strain.
  • The Chiropractic Association of SA advises that the backpack should not weigh more than 10 percent of your child’s weight.
  • Lockers could be the answer to this weighty problem. Lichtenstein advises parents to lobby for lockers at school.
  • Rosenberg says you should talk to your child’s teacher about ways the school can help lighten the load children have to carry. 
Your child’s school bag may be too heavy if he has:
  • headaches;
  • dull, lower backache;
  • neck ache;
  • fatigue and
  • bad posture.


Anonymous wrote 2 years 36 weeks ago

I totally agree, my 8 year old decided this year that she wanted a backpack and no longer wants the trolley bag.

She has been complaining about headaches......but she still refuses to change her school bag.


Melody Mitchell wrote 8 years 4 weeks ago

I see kids so often with very serious spinal stress in my Body Stress Release practice, and the sad part is that these aches and pains are easily prevented! The weight of school bags, coupled with ergonomically incorrect desks and chairs are responsible for many spinal problems in children. In a young, developing body these problems can become irreversible. A UK charity called BackCare has done a fantastic job of lobbying the authorities to take the spinal health of kids seriously. In SA, sadly no organisations like this exist. More articles are needed to highlight these issues. Thanks for once again taking the lead.

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