A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Healthy Headlines: Back-to-school means backpacks; choose well to protect against long-term damage

St. Elizabeth Healthcare

It’s back-to-school time, which means shopping for school supplies and making sure your children have what they need to get through the school day.

More than 40 million students head off to class each day with backpacks slung over their shoulders. About 20 million of those students are carrying twice the recommended weight on the back which can lead to stress injuries and spinal pain that can worsen with age. According to the North American Spine Society, children and teens can experience back pain and spine trauma caused by overloaded or improperly used backpacks. Diagnoses range from neck, mid-back, and lower back strain to “spondylolysis,” a stress fracture of the vertebra.

The right backpack will carry the necessities of the school day without causing any long-term damage. They are designed to distribute the weight of the load among some of the body’s strongest muscles.

The American Occupational Therapy Association website has great information about backpack safety. So does the American Academy of Pediatrics, which provides the following guidelines to help your family use backpacks safely:

Choose the right backpack

1. Wide, padded shoulder straps: Narrow straps can dig into shoulders to cause pain and decreased circulation.
2. Two-shoulder straps: Backpacks with one shoulder strap the run across the body cannot distribute weight evenly.
3. Padded back: A padded back protects against sharp edges on objects inside the pack and increases comfort.
4. Waist strap: A waist strap can distribute the weight of a heavy load more evenly.
5. Lightweight backpack: The backpack itself should not add much weight to the load.
6. Rolling backpack: This may be a good choice for students who must tote a heavy load. Remember that rolling backpacks still must be carried upstairs.
 
Prevent injury

▪ Always use both shoulder straps. Slinging a backpack over one shoulder can strain muscles and may increase the curvature of the spine.
▪ Tighten the straps so that the pack is close to the body. The straps should hold the pack two inches above the waist.
▪ Pack light. The backpack should never weigh more than 10-15 percent of the student’s total body weight. For example, if your child weighs 60 pounds, the backpack should not weigh more than 9 pounds (15% of the child’s weight).
▪ Organize the backpack to use all of its compartments. Pack heavier items closest to the center of the back.
▪ Stop often at school lockers, if possible. Do not carry all of the books needed for the day.
▪ Bend using both knees, when you bend down. Do not bend over at the waist when wearing or lifting a backpack.
▪ Learn back-strengthening exercises to build up the muscles used to carry a backpack.
 
Speak up

▪ Encourage your child or teenager to tell you about pain or discomfort that may be caused by a heavy backpack. Do not ignore any back pain in a child or teenager. Ask your pediatrician for advice.
▪ Talk to the school about lightening the load. Be sure the school allows students to stop at their lockers throughout the day.
▪ Advocate for school education programs about safe backpack use.
 

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