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Houston Ortho Talk: Is “One-Shouldering” a Backpack Safe?

Author: Rosemary Buckle, M.D.

It’s back-to-school time in Houston, which means new clothes, new supplies, and a new look. For many kids, that “new look” may include casually slinging an already overloaded backpack over one shoulder. Many parents who visit my downtown Houston orthopedics practice ask if “one-shouldering” a backpack is really all that dangerous. The short answer is, “Yes.” Carrying weight on a single shoulder can cause musculoskeletal problems no matter the age. But it’s an especially risky habit for kids who are still going through important growing phases.

What are the risks of carrying a backpack on one shoulder?

Carrying a backpack on one shoulder strains the back, shoulders, and neck. Even if your child can stand upright with the backpack over one shoulder, the body is still compensating for the load elsewhere. Over time, this unhealthy habit can lead to rounded shoulders, muscle strain, disc compression, joint irritation, and chronic back pain. (Read one recent collection of studies here.)

How heavy can my child’s backpack be?

A standard recommendation is to keep backpack weight lower than 15-20 percent of body weight. So, if your child weighs 115 lbs., pack weight should be no more than 17 to 22 lbs (which is still a lot of weight). Of course, the less weight your child shoulders, the better. Furthermore, these “max load” guidelines apply to two straps. There is no safe backpack load for just one shoulder.

How can I encourage my kids to be safe?

  • Roller backpacks are always an option. While older kids may not think roller bags are cool, you may be able to persuade your younger ones to try them!
  • If they have to have a backpack, look for an ergonomic one that distributes weight properly.
  • Also, encourage a “two-strap” rule as much as possible; no backpacks over one shoulder!
  • Lastly, one of the easiest ways to avoid injury is to carry less weight. Take more trips to the locker and only carry what you need.

Downtown Houston Orthopedics for Adults & Kids

I regularly treat both adult and pediatric fractures at Houston Institute for Sports Medicine and Orthopedics. If you need fracture care or any other sports med/ortho services, give us a call at (713) 756-5546. You can also schedule your appointment online.

Please consult with your physician before undertaking any form of medical treatment or adopting any exercise program or dietary guidelines.