Banishing Backaches

By Simone Slykhous

April 11, 2017 5 min read

Hauling full backpacks to and from school each day can be a real pain in the neck -- and back and shoulders. Yet backpacks are a school staple -- and a $2.7 billion industry -- for a reason. Toting books and notepads and folders and other supplies is necessary to excel in school. So how can parents and students balance the need for backpacks with the potential for injury?

Step one is to stop over-worrying about long-term damage. "A lot of parents come in to my office thinking that their child might have scoliosis because of a heavy backpack," says Dr. Lori Karol, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Though back, shoulder and neck pain are all possible results from using a too-heavy or poorly worn backpack, scoliosis and other back deformities aren't a danger.

Learning how backpacks affect our bodies helps explain why parents worry. According to registered nurse Anja Hammega, "when a heavy weight, such as a backpack filled with books, is incorrectly placed on the shoulders, the weight's force can pull a child backward. To compensate for this unnatural posture, he or she may bend forward at the hips or arch the back." Similarly, kids who sling their backpacks only on one shoulder might lean to one side to balance the weight, compressing the spine or putting unnatural stress on the shoulders. The effect of this unbalanced stance can be mistaken for scoliosis.

Beyond back pain, kids are also at risk of falling from the weight of their packs. Keep your kid's load light by making sure his or her backpack weighs between 10 and 15 percent of his or her body weight. For example, if your son weighs 80 pounds, his backpack should only be 8 to 12 pounds. Younger children and girls are at even greater risk of toppling over because their packs can be heavier in proportion to their body weight. When carrying too-heavy backpacks, students can accidentally hit other kids with their sizable bags, causing injury or loss of balance in tight spaces such as hallways or bus aisles, too.

Start the year off right by purchasing a backpack that fits your child well and by teaching him or her the right way to wear it. According to Consumer Reports' Backpack Buying Guide from May 2016, buyers should avoid backpacks with careless stitching, fraying fabric edges and exposed zippers without fabric flaps. These are signs of poor manufacturing, and no kid wants to be dealing with a stuck zipper or a broken bag in the middle of the school hallway.

Instead, find a lightweight backpack with two padded shoulder straps. If the straps are too narrow, they can cut into your child's shoulders, potentially interfering with circulation and causing pain or numbness. A padded back can provide comfort and protect your kid from sharp edges of textbooks, rulers, notebooks and more. The backpack should rest evenly in the middle of the back, close to the body. And those wide shoulder straps should allow your child to freely move his or her arms to easily take the backpack off.

Pockets on backpacks are both fun and functional. Having multiple compartments will better distribute the weight of the school supplies, and they can help your son or daughter stay organized. Bigger books should always be placed in the center of the back, and items such as cellphones, calculators and handheld gaming consoles can be easily moved from smaller pockets to lockers during breaks.

What can teachers and school administrations do to reduce back strain? By giving students a bit more time between classes to get to their lockers or cubbies, administrators would be allowing kids to only carry the books and notebooks needed for each class. Shifting away from hardbound textbooks and moving to paperback books or spiral-bound packets will lessen kids' loads as well. And tapping into our increasingly electronic society, many teachers could put notes and curricula on school websites, reducing the need for students to carry books back home each night.

Backpacks are here to stay, so make sure your kid knows how to stay organized and safe.

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