Someday, online textbooks may free students from the ubiquitous overstuffed, weighted-down backpack. But for now, most students are toting heavy loads to, from, and around school. You can help your child avoid injury by buying the right backpack, teaching her to pack and carry it properly, and helping her find ways to leave some of her stuff elsewhere.

In 2008, more than 12,000 backpack-related injuries sent kids to doctor’s offices, hospitals, and emergency rooms, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Improper use of backpacks can lead to bad posture as well as muscle and joint damage, which can cause severe back, neck, and shoulder pain.

“Good backpack safety is about how much you’re carrying and how you’re carrying it,” says Dr. Anita Rao, an orthopedic surgeon in Vancouver, Wash., and member of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. She offers these tips:

  • To help distribute the weight evenly, invest in a quality backpack with two wide, padded shoulder straps and a lot of compartments. If your child has a tendency to tote a lot of books, look for a backpack with a waist strap for additional support. “This really helps redistribute the weight,” Dr. Rao says.

  • Help your child strategize to keep the backpack as light as possible. Are there books that can remain home or in a school locker?

  • Limit the backpack to books and lightweight personal items. Some kids—and parents—want to carry their computer everywhere. Others shove their sports gear in with their textbooks. “Have a separate bag for sports,” Rao advises.

  • Help your child pack his backpack properly as part of your back-to-school routine. Teach him to place the heaviest items closest to the middle of his back.

  • Make sure your child cleans out her backpack regularly. Even over the course of a few weeks, extra materials and scrap paper can pile up.

  • If your child is petite, take extra steps to keep her backpack light. “You don’t want a child carrying more than 15 percent of her body weight,” Rao says. Possible solutions include choosing a backpack with wheels or buying an extra set of textbooks to keep at home. Your child’s school should be willing to help her safely transport her books.

  • Demonstrate how to carry a backpack properly. Both straps should be over his shoulders. To affect a cool, laid-back vibe, kids tend to sling their backpack over one shoulder. That is a major don’t, Rao says.

  • Messenger-style bags should only be used if he is carrying a light load and if he plans to wear it with the strap diagonally across his body, not slung over one shoulder. A backpack worn properly is better than a messenger bag, Rao says, but a backpack worn slung over one shoulder is worse than a messenger bag worn across the body.

  • Model best practices in front of your children. Even if you’re not a backpack user, don’t overload your purse or bag. Carry it properly and distribute the weight evenly.

With all the challenges facing busy families, it’s easy to disregard your child’s insistence on carrying his overstuffed backpack over one shoulder. But it’s worth it to nag. Back, neck, and shoulder injuries can linger into adulthood. That isn’t baggage you want your child to have to carry.

Journalist Patti Ghezzi covered education and schools for 10 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She lives in Avondale Estates, Ga., with her family, which includes husband Jason, daughter Celia, and geriatric mutt Albany.