Pack Pains

By Chandra Orr

June 5, 2009 5 min read


Prevent spinal injuries with proper backpacks

Chandra Orr

Creators News Service

That cool new backpack your child picked out seemed like a good idea -- until they loaded it with 30 pounds of books and supplies. Now they're walking around like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, griping that their shoulders hurt.

It's no wonder why. The wrong backpack wreaks havoc on a child's posture -- and proper posture is crucial in preventing future back pain and injuries, according to occupational therapist Chris Sorrells, an ergonomic assessment specialist and president of That heavy load of books and supplies, distributed improperly, day after day, will take its toll on a young, still-growing spinal column.

In fact, by the end of their teen years, some 60 percent of adolescents have experienced at least one episode of lower back pain, due in part to poor backpack protocol, according to the International Chiropractic Pediatric Association (ICPA).

"A backpack that does not fit well hangs the entire weight off of the child's neck and shoulders," Sorrells said. "A properly-fit pack will distribute the weight evenly between the shoulders and keep the weight closer to the back, making the load easier to carry. If the pack is ergonomically well designed, it may even be able to offload some of the stress to the hips."

An overstuffed pack also contributes to back pain, so play it safe and pack light. Over time, over-weighted packs may cause postural misalignments, which can lead to restricted back movement or misaligned vertebrae. These spinal dysfunctions predispose people to neck and back pain, headaches, osteoarthritis and even slipped discs.

"Think about how many kids you see slouching," Sorrells said. "It's common sense that hanging 30 pounds on your neck will inevitably create discomfort and make it hard to stand upright."

A fully-loaded backpack should weigh no more than 10 percent of the child's body weight, according to The Ergonomics Center of North Carolina at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C.

The Ergonomics Center, a membership-based consulting and training organization, offers these additional tips for choosing -- and using -- the best backpack:

* Size it up: When shopping for a new backpack, take a tape measure. What works for your teenager will not fit your fourth grader. For a proper fit, a backpack should be no larger than the child's torso and should not hang more than 4 inches below the waist. Look for a padded pack to help cushion the back and minimize contact pressure.

* Strap in: Look for wide, padded straps that adjust easily. The straps should fit snugly, but not tightly. A waist strap offers added support by securing the pack in place and shifting some of the weight from the shoulders to the torso.

Encourage your child to use both shoulder straps and the waist strap. Slinging the pack over one shoulder is a definite no-no.

* Pick pockets: Several smaller compartments, as opposed to one large catch-all compartment, keep items secure and allow proper weight distribution. Look for a pack with several larger book compartments near the back and smaller compartments up front to wrangle supplies. Advise your child to use all of the compartments, rather than stuffing everything in one big pocket.

* Grab the wheels: If the school allows it, consider a backpack with wheels. It may be nerdy, but there's nothing cool about chronic back pain.

Look for a pack that rolls effortlessly and has an easy-to-use handle release. Be sure the pack has a lightweight frame that is well padded for those instances when it must be carried.

* Lighten the load: Remember that less is more. Remind your child to carry only the essentials and leave extra books and belongings at home or in their locker. If your child has to hunch over or angle forward to carry the pack, it's too heavy.

Don't be afraid to offer gentle reminders as necessary. It might sound like nagging, but reminding your child to keep it light and use both shoulder straps will help them form good habits and prevent future problems.

"It is important to consider ergonomics for children as you're framing the basis of their future perspective on posture," Sorrells said. "We should be instilling good habits into them when they are young to protect their futures."

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