Put backpack safety on your child's back to school list

September 04, 2007
With thousands of local children going back to class for another year, experts at New Hanover Regional Medical Center are warning parents to keep an eye on their child’s backpack. While they are one of the most popular ways for kids to carry their books to and from school and home, backpacks can also be the cause of back and neck pain if not worn properly. As with many other health care issues, proper and early education is the key to keeping our children and teenagers healthy. “Learning the proper way to load and carry a backpack can save kids from pain and injury now and reduce the chance that the pain becomes chronic,” said Marcia Scullion, Physical Therapist at New Hanover Regional Medical Center’s Independence Rehabilitation Center. “Many of the teenage patients we see complain of back and neck pain, or of a tingling in their arms. All of those can be associated with wearing a backpack the wrong way.” An overloaded backpack forces the child to compensate by leaning forward to balance the load if the backpack is over weighted and hanging too low. A 2001 Physical Therapy study at Northeastern University looked at pre-kindergarten to 9th grade students and found that postural changes were magnified when the backpack weighed more than 10-15 percent of the students’ bodyweight. A 2003 follow-up study found that college students were also affected by “disproportionate weight and improper use of backpacks” but not as much as younger students. Another 2001 study at Simmons College found that 55% of students in grades five through eight carry backpack loads weighing more than 15% of their body weight, and one-third of those students said they have back pain. The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that 7,200 emergency room visits each year result from injuries related to book bags and backpacks. The CPSC also reports that backpack-related injuries are up 330% since 1996. Scullion says its especially important for parents of younger children to pay close attention to proper backpack use. “Older children are stronger, their muscles have developed more and they will know if a backpack is too heavy,” she said. “Younger kids might not realize they are doing damage to their back or their skeletal system.” Experts like NHRMC Physical Therapist Marcia Scullion say teachers and parents should work together to encourage proper backpack safety. Here are some tips as suggested and supported by the American Physical Therapy Association and the American Pediatric Association:
  • Wear both straps. Wearing both straps distributes the weight load evenly so well aligned posture is encouraged and facilitated. Look for padded straps when shopping for a new backpack.
  • Watch body mechanics putting on and taking off the backpack. Avoid twisting and bending together at the waist. Swinging the weight to get the backpack on is a sign it is too heavy.
  • Make sure the load is appropriate to the body weight. Keep the load at 10-15% of the child’s body weight. If it is necessary to carry more books, try carrying them in front in the arms to balance the load on the spine.
  • Make sure the backpack is in the center of your back. Adjust the straps and use the middle waist belt if available to keep the backpack from hanging too low. It should rest between or below the shoulder blades. It should not go below the lumbar spine.
  • Encourage more physical activity. Active children tend to have better muscle flexibility and strength. With the increasing number of overweight children in America, physical activity is more important than ever.