Even on the first day of school, your child probably had a heavy load of supplies in his or her backpack. Each school year, millions of children overload their packs and risk back pain, rounding of the shoulders, and interferes with balance, making it easier to fall.
In 2001, more than 7.000 people visited the emergency room for backpack-related injuries, according to data from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission. Between 2010 and 2011, backpack injuries in kids increased 6.5%.
A recent study conducted in Italy found that the average child carries a backpack that would be the equivalent of a 39-pound burden for a 176-pound man. Of those children carrying heavy backpacks to school, 60% had experienced back pain as a result.
Kids also sometimes risk distorting the natural curve of the middle and lower back because they carry backpacks over only one shoulder. The spine leans to the opposite side to compensate for the uneven weight load, stressing and straining the muscles and spinal joints.
While permanent injury or spinal deformity is unlikely, research does show that the longer a child wears a heavy backpack, the longer it takes for the body to heal.
Most experts suggest that limiting the backpack to no more than 10-15% of a child’s body weight can help minimize muscle strain and back pain. So if a child weighs 100 pounds, his or her backpack should be no more than 15 pounds.
Unfortunately, there are going to be times when a student has to carry more, such as during exam time. Here are some backpack tips for parents to consider:
• Be sure the pack is the appropriate size for the child. It should never hang more than four inches below the waistline. A backpack that hangs too low increases the weight on the shoulders, causing your child to lean forward when walking.
• A backpack with individualized compartments helps in positioning the contents most effectively. Heavier books should be placed closest to the back. Make sure that pointy or bulky objects are packed toward the front so they do not cause injury.
• The material of the backpack is important. Leather backpacks often weigh more, so choose instead one made of a lighter weight material.
• 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 very important. Non-padded straps are uncomfortable, and can dig into your child's shoulders. Use abdominal straps if available to help redistribute the load evenly across the back.
• The shoulder straps should be adjustable so the backpack can be fitted to your child's body. Straps that are too loose can cause the backpack to dangle uncomfortably and cause spinal misalignment and pain.
• If the backpack is still too heavy, talk to your child's teacher. Ask if your child could leave the heaviest books at school, and bring home only lighter hand-out materials or workbooks. Or ask if it is possible to have one set of books at school and one kept at home. Alternatively, ask if there is an online option for textbooks.
• Although the use of rollerpacks - or backpacks on wheels - has become popular in recent years, the ACA is now recommending that they be used cautiously and on a limited basis by only those students who are not physically able to carry a backpack. Some school districts have begun banning the use of rollerpacks because they clutter hallways, resulting in dangerous trips and falls.
Cottalorda J, Bourelle S, Gautheron V, "Effects of Backpack Carrying in Children," Orthopedics, Nov 2004 (vol 27:11 p.1172-5).
American Chiropractic Association