Backpacks not to blame for back pain in kids

3 May 2018
It's a weighty topic, but new research from the University of Sydney suggests schoolbags do not cause back pain in children and adolescents.
Child carrying large backpack

The study, published today in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, reviewed 69 studies on backpacks and back pain involving over 72,000 kids and found there is no convincing evidence that school bags increase the risk of back pain.

“Contrary to popular opinion, the findings are telling us that there is likely no link between back pain and schoolbag characteristics like weight, type and the way kids are carrying them,” said senior author Associate Professor Steven Kamper, an expert on paediatric pain from the University’s School of Public Health.

“The findings really call into question the various guidelines that advise only carrying 10 percent of one’s body weight, and statements from professional groups that endorse particular brands of backpacks.”

While the findings seem counterintuitive, Associate Professor Kamper says the study is the most comprehensive review ever conducted in this area given the scope of the study and inclusion of both cross-sectional (observing a group at a point in time) and longitudinal (observation over time) studies.

“If there was a cause and effect relationship it would have been apparent. It looks like people have just jumped on backpacks as an easy target without the evidence, and it’s stuck,” he said.

Interestingly however, the researchers did find a link between perceived weight and back pain, in that if kids thought the backpack was heavy they were more likely to report back pain.

Low back pain is one of the leading causes of disability and work absence worldwide. 

Studies show that around 18 to 24 percent of children report back pain at least monthly, with prevalence increasing through the teenage years.

“We still don’t have a good understanding of pain in the childhood and adolescent years, and that’s why we often hear generic phrases like growing pains or adolescent pain,” said Associate Professor Kamper.

“For many children pain comes and goes with little worry and we would be silly to intervene medically, however other children go on to experience ongoing pain and disruption to their lives. We need further research to help us understand how to distinguish between these groups and what is causing the pain.”

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