By Dr. Tania Aloisio
It is that time of year once again… the carefree days of summer slowly turn into the routine of waking up early, packing lunches and helping with homework. As you and your children scan the weekly flyers for the best deals and latest trends in preparation for the upcoming year, consider that one of their most coveted school supplies—the backpack—can actually pose a risk to their health.
I can still remember the excitement of going to the store to pick out a new backpack. I remained focused on choosing the coolest colour, design or even character (The Care Bears!) that would be adorning my back for the year to come. After those crucial details were decided, the last thing to consider was if the backpack would be big enough to stuff my jacket into, and of course, how cool it would look hanging from one shoulder. Little did I know that there was more to choosing the right backpack than just colour or design, and that the two straps served an important purpose. The truth is, if you or your children do not know exactly how to choose, load, lift and wear backpacks properly, these all-important accessories can be a pain in the back. Literally.
A majority of chiropractors report that overloaded backpacks are a common contributor to back and neck pain in school aged children.*
By the end of their teen years, at least 50% of youth experience at least one significant episode of low back pain. Are backpacks contributing to this? The way in which you carry a backpack becomes a postural habit, and often a poor posture habit. Injuries are common and even in the absence of injury the repetitive and incorrect use of a backpack can lead to long term complications. For instance, carrying a heavy backpack on one shoulder leads to a load that is unevenly or improperly distributed by the back resulting in poor posture (leaning to the opposite side); this posture can eventually distort the spinal column to the point that its alignment is compromised. This can further cause muscle strain, headaches, back, neck and arm pain, and even nerve damage.
Here are a few tips for choosing, loading, lifting and wearing backpacks correctly.
Choosing the Right Backpack:
Your backpack should:
- Be proportionate to your child’s body – The top of the bag should not extend higher than the top of the shoulder, and the bottom should not fall below the hip bone.
- Be made of lightweight material – such as vinyl or canvas
- Have padded shoulder straps at least two inches wide that can be adjusted so they are not too snug around the arms and under the armpits.
- Have a padded back
- Have a hip strap or waist belt – A waist strap helps to effectively redistribute as much as 50 to 70 per cent of the weight off the shoulders and spine onto the pelvis. This will equalize the strain on the bones, joints and muscles.
- Have several individual pockets to also help redistribute weight.
Packing it Properly:
Too often backpacks are overloaded to weights that can be as much as 40 lbs. Continually lifting and carrying this amount of weight as a child can place unnecessary stresses on the neck, shoulders and lower back. Therefore, first make sure that your child is only packing what they need, and when packing remember that:
- Backpacks shouldn’t exceed 15% of a child’s weight. For example, if your child weighs 50 lbs, his or her backpack pack should not weigh more than 7.5 lbs.
- Weight should be evenly distributed – use those extra pockets!
- Pack the heaviest items closest to the body
- Pack odd-shaped items on the outside
- Only carry items that are needed
Putting the Backpack on and Wearing it Right:
It is probably best to help young children with this task at least the first few times. Place the backpack on a flat surface at the waist height of the child. Slide both shoulder straps on one at a time and then tighten them to fit comfortably. You should be able to slide your hand between the backpack and your child’s back. This positioning will reduce the strain on his or her neck, shoulders and back. Again, remember to:
- Always wear both shoulder straps – A backpack should never be worn on one shoulder as this causes too much strain on the neck and shoulder and is implicated in long-term musculoskeletal problems.
- Adjust the straps so the pack fits snugly
- Use the waist straps
- Squat or kneel to pick up the bag if placed on the ground
- Lift with the knees and avoid excessive twisting or bending
It is important to know that injuries or even poor posture can be easily avoided with attention to something as simple as your child’s backpack. If your child does complain of back pain, numbness or weakness in his or her arms and legs, please see your health care provider/chiropractor to help correct their condition and prevent future problems.
Remember to pack-it-light and wear-it-right. Have a great 2013-2014 school year!
* Spine 1998; 23:228-34