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School Backpack Basics: A Weighty Issue

Tips for choosing and using a backpack, so your kids won't hurt their back.

Backpack selection at Big Lots in Fredericksburg.  Photo by David Haglund.
Backpack selection at Big Lots in Fredericksburg. Photo by David Haglund.
By Kathleen F. Miller

Back-to-school shopping lists always include a new backpack. 

If you have a middle-school or high-school student, chances are he or she is going to carry a ton of heavy books and folders in it.  Some schools don't offer lockers, so your child may be dragging around a Sherpa-sized pack all day, potentially causing pain and damage to their growing spine. 

Pain You Can Prevent

Dr. Stefanie Haugen, a parent of two, has been in practice as a chiropractor for over a decade.  Carrying a heavy backpack improperly over time can definitely result in long-term challenges to a child’s spine, she said.  "Problems can include strained muscles and joints, headaches, forward head posture and serious back pain, just to name a few," Haugen said.

One of the most common symptoms reported from backpack use is “rucksack palsy."

"This condition results when pressure put on the nerves in the shoulder causes numbness in the hands, muscle waiting and in extreme cases, nerve damage," Haugen said. "While there are many causes of back pain, backpack-caused pain is a serious, yet preventable," she said.

The Right Way To Wear A Backpack

Many students do not carry their backpacks properly, Haugen said.  “Do not sling it over one shoulder and don’t let it ride low on the back,” she advised. 

Avoid letting your student use too big of a backpack, she cautioned. The bottom of the backpack should align with the curve of the lower back and should not be more than four inches below the waistline.

Haugen said parents should encourage children to not carry a locker's worth of books home and back to school everyday.  "Have them only carry what is needed for the day,”  she said.  Placing the heavier books in the closest compartment to your back is best for weight distribution, she said.

Here are some other tips:

  • Purchase the proper size backpack, with wide shoulder straps.  “Shoulder straps should be cinched up with the backpack snug against the child's back, not hung low pulling on the spine and low back muscles," Haugen said.
  • A backpack’s shoulder-strap anchor points should rest one to two inches below the top of the shoulders.
  • Purchase backpacks specifically designed to distribute weight better. For example, Air Packs (available on Amazon.com and at some chiropractic offices) DC packs, RakGear and North Face.
  • A backpack shouldn’t exceed 10 to 15 percent of a child's body weight. "An 80-pound student shouldn’t be lugging around a 12-pound backpack on a regular basis,” Haugen said. 
  • Pick up heavy objects like backpacks and instruments by bending your knees and using your legs to lift the weight.  "Don't bend over and pull up," Haugen said.  Avoid having a child twist around, such as when exiting the car, to try and pick up a heavy backpack or instrument case, or haul it up and over a seat back. 
  • Maintain good posture while carrying a backpack.  Avoid rounded or hunched shoulders.

Act Early To Treat Pain

Parents should listen carefully and respond immediately when a child complains of pain associated with carrying their backpack, instruments and sports equipment.

“If they complain of neck or back pain, take them to see your family chiropractor, a physical therapist, your family doctor or other posture specialist,” Haugen said.

Editor's Note: This blog originally appeared on Los Gatos Patch in California.

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