Heavy Backpacks and Children… A Dangerous Combination

You see it in every schoolyard in the USA – the hunch forward, the tuck of the hand under the taut strap, the tug and, finally, the struggle to stand up straight. To worried parents, they can look like pack mules on two legs – students who are carrying not only a load on their minds but also a load on their backs.

School backpacks are getting heavier, bulging with textbooks and loose-leaf binders, and sometimes laptops, musical instruments and lunchboxes. By middle school, these necessary carryalls often weigh more than a quarter of what the students who carry them weigh. And this is quite alarming considering the American Chiropractic Association (ACA) recommends that bags weigh only 10 to 15 percent of the student’s bodyweight.
As a result of these heavy loads, children are increasingly at risk for back pain, muscular strain and hunched posture. But these risks have become reality for many. A study by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons said that 58 percent of orthopedists reported seeing children complaining of back and shoulder pain caused by heavy backpacks. And on an even more serious level, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's latest statistics state about 10,000 children aged 19 and under were treated at emergency rooms, doctors' offices and clinics for backpack-related injuries in 2005.

Sadly, children tend to shrug off some proposed solutions. Middle schoolers often don’t want adults to help them get organized because they view their book bags as their own private territories. And for the older kids, visiting lockers to lighten the load requires out-of-the way trips between classes or less time to socialize with friends. So, manufacturers are taking action by creating the best backpacks for kids.

Book bags were never designed to carry such heavy loads, manufacturers say. But much to the delight of parents and students, backpack safety has undergone a radical evolution. Many are now designed to be ergonomic while remaining fashionable. Several companies are reinforcing them with metal stays along the back, extra cushioning in the shoulders and waist belts. Also becoming more popular are rolling backpacks for kids, but they can be difficult to navigate on curbs and stairs, and can create hazards in crowded hallways. Worse, some middle schoolers and teens view them as uncool.

As a parent, you should know what to look for when it comes to back problems from backpacks. Some signs include:

  • Changes in posture when wearing the backpack
  • Struggling when putting on or taking off the backpack 
  • Back, neck or shoulder pain
  • Neurological signs such as tingling and numbness in the arms and hands
  • Red marks on the shoulders

The ACA offers these tips for proper wear of backpacks to help prevent back pain in children:

  • Make sure your child's backpack weighs no more than 5 to 10 percent of his or her body weight.
  • The backpack should never hang more than four inches below the waistline.
  • A backpack with individualized compartments helps in positioning the contents most effectively.
  • Bigger is not necessarily better. The more room there is in a backpack, the more your child will carry and the heavier the backpack will be.
  • Urge your child to wear both shoulder straps. Lugging the backpack around by one strap can cause the disproportionate shift of weight to one side, leading to neck and muscle spasms, as well as low-back pain.
  • Wide, padded straps are key. Non-padded straps are uncomfortable and can dig into shoulders.
  • Shoulder straps should be adjustable so the backpack can be fitted to the body.
  • If the backpack is still too heavy, talk to the teacher. Ask if your child could leave the heaviest books at school and bring home only lighter hand-out materials or workbooks.
  • Although the use of rollerpacks or wheeled backpacks for kids has become popular, but they should be used cautiously and on a limited basis by those students who are not physically able to carry a backpack. Some school districts have banned rollerpacks because they clutter hallways, causing dangerous trips and falls.

Chiropractic Care Can Help
If your child’s backpack is causing back pain or discomfort, consult a doctor of chiropractic. Treatment may include targeted exercises to help develop strong muscles along with instruction in good nutrition, posture and sleeping habits.




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