BU Today

Health & Wellness

Backpack Safety 101

“Pack it light, wear it right,” says Sargent’s Jacobs


As the Class of 2022 arrives on campus, BU Today offers a series called Campus Life 101.” Over the coming days, you’ll find tips about how to do laundry, how to shop for groceries, what to look for when buying textbooks and backpacks, how best to manage your personal finances, how to stay safe on—and off—campus, and how to reduce stress and anxiety.

Before you stuff your backpack to the breaking point today, consider this: each year, more than 14,000 Americans seek medical treatment for backpack injuries, with more than 5,000 winding up in emergency rooms. And the financial costs are astonishing: lower back and neck pain costs the United States nearly $88 billion a year, according to a 2016 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. BU Today spoke with nationally recognized backpack safety expert Karen Jacobs (Sargent’79), a Sargent College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences clinical professor, about how to prevent discomfort and pain caused by carrying heavy backpacks. The number-one rule of thumb? Select the backpack that best fits you—and don’t overload it.

BU Today: What are the health threats of an overloaded backpack?

Jacobs: Millions of students across the United States cram in textbooks, binders, notebook computers, pencils, pens, erasers, craft supplies, lunches, and extra clothes for gym class before making the trek to school. Researchers have reported seeing backpacks that weigh more than 40 percent of a student’s weight. Just imagine a child weighing 60 pounds carrying a backpack weighing 24 pounds. The good news is that with some easy behavior changes, this health issue can be eliminated.

What leads to injuries, and what is the best way to prevent them?

Research suggests that incorrect wear, the weight, the amount of time, the distance walked, inadequate distribution of weight, and poor placement of items in the backpack can be contributing risk factors for discomfort, fatigue, muscle soreness, musculoskeletal pain (especially in the lower back), respiratory problems, and other issues.

The American Occupational Therapy Association offers some tips for preventing these issues. They include:

  • Always select a backpack that is the right size for you.
  • Choose a backpack with adjustable padded shoulder straps and a padded back panel.
  • Distribute weight evenly. Load heaviest items closest to your back and balance materials so that you can easily stand up straight.
  • If a backpack has a hip belt, wear it to improve balance and take some strain off sensitive neck and shoulder muscles.
  • Check that your packed backpack feels comfortable. If it doesn’t, determine what you can leave at home that day to lessen the load.
  • If the backpack is still too heavy, consider a book bag on wheels.

Wear your backpack only when needed. For example, if you’re waiting for the BUS (BU Shuttle) or the T, take your backpack off, keeping it close to you on the ground or on a bench. When you put your backpack on again, bend at the knees and grab the backpack with both hands to lift it to your shoulders.

On urban campuses like BU’s, students need to be increasingly alert while crossing streets with a heavy backpack, because it might reduce their walking speed.

How do you know which is the right backpack for you?

You should always choose a backpack that is the right size for you. Make sure the height of the backpack extends from approximately two inches below the shoulder blades to waist level, or slightly above the waist. The proper backpack should have padded shoulder straps, a padded back, chest and hip straps, a reflector, and for older students, a compartment on the side of the bag. It’s important to remember when choosing a backpack for children that the one they used the year before may no longer be the right size.

When buying a backpack for young children, you urge parents to avoid monogramming their names. Why?

It is a safety issue when a name is on a backpack. For example, a stranger could approach a child and call him or her by name if it appears on the backpack. It’s best to be proactive and avoid putting a child’s name, or even initials, on a backpack.

You argue against buying backpacks online. Why?

I highly recommend that once you decide what you’ll be using your backpack for and know what size and features you want, it’s best to try it on before buying it to guarantee you’re getting the best fit. You want to feel the padding and thickness of the straps and see if it can be organized inside so that weight can be properly balanced and items do not poke into you. Once you have tried on backpacks to find a good match, you can order one online if it’s the same design or has the same dimensions.

You say it’s important to consider a backpack’s material before buying it. What should you look for and what should you avoid?

Backpacks are made from a variety of fabrics that have an impact on the weight, durability, and strength of the pack. I like a nylon packcloth or Cordura, a nylon canvas. There are also eco- and animal-friendly materials. For example, one company—8HZ Design—uses 100 percent recycled plastic bottles for the lining of their backpacks. Try to avoid backpacks that are made of heavy material such as leather.

What are the warning signs of an injury from backpack use?

If a person is complaining of neck, shoulder, or back discomfort associated with wearing a backpack, it can be a sign that there is a problem. Tingling in arms and hands could signal an issue. Remember, if the backpack feels too heavy, it probably is.

If you have any of those symptoms, what should you do?

If you show signs of any of these symptoms, it’s best to see if the weight of the backpack can be reduced, the amount of time wearing the backpack can be reduced, or the distance carrying the backpack can be reduced. Consider using a wheeled backpack. I do almost every day during the academic year.

Sargent College first year occupational therapy doctoral students will host the college’s annual Backpack Awareness Day on Tuesday, September 25, from 2 to 5 pm, for BU students, faculty, and staff, in front of Sargent College, 635 Commonwealth Ave. Backpacks will be weighed and organizers will demonstrate the correct ways to pack and wear them.

Find more tips on how to navigate college life in our “Campus Life 101” series.


3 Comments on Backpack Safety 101

  • Lisa Sorenson on 09.10.2018 at 10:06 am

    I’m curious what kind of backpack Prof Jacobs has – could you find out please? Thanks!

    • Karen Jacobs on 09.10.2018 at 2:13 pm

      Dear Lisa,
      Although I don’t endorse any backpack, as a person should use their personal preferences once the important strategies for selection are followed, I am happy to share the type of backpack that I use. It’s The North Face Angstrom 28. Karen

      • Lisa Sorenson on 09.10.2018 at 4:51 pm

        Thank you!!!

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