updated 8/30/2007 3:47:05 PM ET 2007-08-30T19:47:05

With a new school year underway, the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) is reminding parents that wearing backpacks improperly or ones that are too heavy put children at increased risk for back injuries and muscle strain.

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A recent study of backpack-carrying pre-K through 9th graders showed that unhealthy changes in posture are magnified if the backpack weighs more than 10 to 15 percent of the student’s body weight. The APTA recommends that backpack loads be kept to this limit.

Physical therapist and APTA member Dr. Mary Ann Wilmarth warns in an APTA-issued statement that injury can occur when a child bearing an overloaded backpack resorts to arching the back, bending forward, twisting, or leaning to one side.

These changes in posture can lead to improper alignment of the spine. A backpack load that is too heavy also causes muscles to work harder, leading to strain and fatigue, and rendering the neck, shoulders, and back more vulnerable to injury.

College students are not immune to backpack-related injury; they too risk injury to their back when carrying overloaded backpacks and wearing them inappropriately, Wilmarth found in a recent study.

The APTA offers these tips for safe backpack use:

Use both straps. Slinging the backpack over only one shoulder using a single strap causes one side of the body to bear the brunt of the weight. By wearing two shoulder straps, the weight of the backpack is better distributed, which promotes better posture.

Wear the backpack over the strongest mid-back muscles. The backpack should rest evenly in the middle of the back near the child’s center of gravity. Shoulder straps should be adjusted to allow the child to put on and take off the backpack with ease. Tighten the straps so that the backpack does not extend below the lower back.

In addition to lightening the load, the APTA suggests organizing the contents of the backpack by placing the heaviest items closest to the back.

They also favor ergonomically designed backpacks to enhance safety and comfort. Hip and chest belts are useful, as they help transfer some of the backpack weight from the back and shoulders to the hips and torso.

Wilmarth’s studies suggest that backpacks with wheels are a good option for younger students who don’t change classes or need to go up and down stairs frequently. However, there are precautions to take with “rolling backpacks” as well.

For example, the extended handle needs to be long enough so that the child is not forced to twist and bend, and that the wheels need to be sufficiently large so that the backpack doesn’t shake or topple. For more on backpack safety, visit www.apta.org.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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