More than 92 percent of the children in the US use backpacks for school. Although experts recommend that kids carry no more than 10 to 15 percent of their body weight, but that doesn’t always seem to be the case.
According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), nearly 10,000 kids were treated in hospitals and doctors’ offices for injuries related to backpacks.
Don’t wait for your kids to complain about back pain. Instead, pay attention to their posture, and keep an attentive eye on all of the items that are loaded into their backpack each day.
The damage backpacks can do
“When used correctly, backpacks can be a good way to carry the necessities of the school day,” said orthopaedic surgeon and American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) spokesperson Melanie Kinchen, MD. “Backpack injuries are commonly caused by wearing overloaded backpacks, as well as lifting and carrying them incorrectly. Parents and teachers should guide kids to take preventative measures.”
Dr Kinchen says that you can start by choosing a backpack that is appropriately-sized for your child, or have them use a rolling backpack as an alternative to carrying their heavy load on their shoulders.
It’s important to start taking off the extra weight as soon as possible, because the burden of a heavy backpack can eventually lead to the more serious problems of chronic back pain and scoliosis, says Northeastern University physical therapy professor Mary Hickey.
Hickey conducted a research study on the physically damaging affects of heavy backpacks after witnessing her own children strain under the weight of their schoolbooks. About 70 percent of the middle school students in her experiment were lugging around a backpack that was harmful to their growing bodies.
While small kids hauling around 25-pound backpacks is a common sight in elementary, middle and high school hallways, according to her computation, only a 200-pound person can safely carry a bag of this size.
The trap of the single strap
A team of physician researchers in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, University of California at San Diego found that typically the backpacks are loaded with almost one-fourth of the child’s body weight (22 percent) and worn with only one strap.
They examined the effect heavy-loaded backpack straps can have on children, and discovered that the straps can significantly increase pressure when the load is ten percent or more. They also found that strap pressures with loads as little as ten percent of body weight can obstruct localized blood flow and contribute to shoulder fatigue, and may result in a loss of fine motor control and increased fatigue.
How parents can help kids avoid heavy backpacks
“The most important thing for parents to know is that there are simple ways to prevent kids from permanently damaging their backs,” says Ms Hicke.
She offers some advice for parents to keep in mind — especially while shopping for back-to-school gear:
- As a rule, kids should never carry a bag that weighs more than 10% of their body weight. This rule applies to all students, no matter what age. “If your child is unable to stand up straight with the pack on, the load is too heavy,” Hickey says.
- The bigger the bag, the more stuff kids will cram into it. Purchase a smaller backpack that will only fit the bare necessities. This will prevent kids from lugging around those leftovers from lunch, notes passed in math class, or half-melted chapsticks.
- Periodically remind your child to clean out trash and remove old papers and homework.
The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons also suggests some ways parents can help eliminate pain and discomfort:
- Watch your child put on or take off the backpack to see if it is a struggle.
- Do not ignore red marks on the shoulders if your child or teenager expresses discomfort.
- Encourage your child or teenager to tell you about pain or discomfort that may be caused by a heavy backpack, like numbness or tingling in the arms or legs.
- Talk to the school about minimizing the number of things that must be carried, so you can keep the load under 10-15 percent of the child’s body weight.
- Teach your kids to remove or reorganize items if it becomes too heavy, and to place biggest items closest to the back.
- Remind your child to lift properly and bend at the knees to pick up a backpack.
- He or she should carry only those items that are required for the day; leave books at home or school, if possible.
Finally, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta have their top tips for using backpacks safely:
- Your child’s backpack should not be wider than his body.
- Buy a backpack with two wide, padded straps that go over the shoulders. Make sure your child uses both straps at all times.
- We recommend using a backpack with a padded waist or chest belt. This distributes weight more evenly across the body. Multiple compartments also help distribute the weight.
- Consider a backpack with a metal frame (like hikers use) or on wheels (like a flight attendant’s bag). Check with your child’s school first to see if these types of bags are allowed.
- Make sure the straps are pulled tight, so the bottom part of the backpack sits no lower on the back then the beltline. If the backpack sits too low, then there is increased pressure on the shoulders.
- Make sure your child isn’t toting unnecessary items like laptops, video games, and shoes or clothing, because these can add a lot of pounds to a backpack.
- Encourage your child to develop stronger lower back and abdominal muscles to help avoid back injury. Weight training and yoga are two activities that can help strengthen these core muscles.