Is Your Child’s Backpack Setting Them Up…

…for a Life of Back Pain?

Backpacks have become a necessity for every school-aged child, as has to fill them with every heavy book and school supply imaginable. Their overstuffed packs can weigh 30 lbs. or more and they carry them all day long.  They walk around like turtles, schlepping their substantial packs from one class to the next, hoping they won’t fall over backward (a turtle’s biggest fear). It’s really no big surprise that more and more kids are reporting back problems than ever before.

The Problem

In 2013, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission stated that backpack-related injuries sent 5,415 people to emergency rooms across the United States.  The recommended weight for your child’s backpack is no more than 10-15% of the child’s body weight but very few kids are not following that advice.

There are a few reasons for this.  First, children are getting more and more homework at a younger age.  Even kindergarteners and 1st graders can’t get away with just bringing a lunch box to school anymore because they need to bring home books for homework, typically a half hour’s worth a night.  For high schoolers, the average amount of homework given is a whopping 3 and ½ hours a night, which usually means every book and every binder will have to come home with the student.

Perhaps this is what’s behind the trend of high school kids forgoing the use of locker altogether and opting for carrying around everything they need for school wherever they go.  By the time kids get into high school, few are still using their lockers. In fact, some schools are doing away with them altogether which they claim this is merely a reaction to the declining use of them over the last several decades.  For some kids, they simply don’t have time to go to their locker in the allotted 3 minutes to get from one class to the next. For others, dealing with combination locks is a hassle. Whatever the reason, carrying a full day’s worth of books and binders is extremely harmful to the spines of our children.

A study published in the Journal of Pediatric Orthopaedics found that a total of 37% of students 11-14 years who regularly used backpacks experienced back pain.  Of those students, 34% admitted that they limit their activity due to the pain, while 14% use medication to treat the pain.  Carrying around a heavy backpack can lead to back and neck pain, cause rounding of the shoulders, balance problems, muscle spasms, and even headaches, all of which, if not treated, can persist into adulthood.

Your spine is meant to be straight and good backpacks are designed to distribute the weight of the pack on your back evenly when both straps are on your shoulders and are appropriately tightened.  With a properly fitted pack, you should be able to retain your balance. It is when the back is overloaded and weighs too much, straps are not tight, or are worn over one shoulder instead of two that problems arise.

When a child puts on a heavy backpack, he leans forward to compensate for the weight on his back.  He slouches and arches his back and walks, all of which puts tremendous pressure on his spine. The same thing happens if he carries it on one side except he must lean to the opposite side for balance, causing muscle pain.  If the pack doesn’t have straps that are wide enough, they can dig into his shoulders and cause nerve pain.

Back pain can have a snowball effect on the health of your child.  A child who experiences back or neck pain will be less likely to participate in physical activity, which in turn, makes them more susceptible to injury.

The Solution
Fortunately, there are many ways to combat the problem that you and your child can do.

Lessen the Load.

  • Go through everything in your child’s backpack to see if he needs it.  Some schools have schedules that have classes on alternating days, so books won’t have to be brought every day.
  • Check with your child’s teachers to see if they can coordinate homework assignments so they don’t always require book work.
  • If your child’s school isn’t taking advantage of programs that allow them to post homework pages online, talk to the principal to see if they can make this an option.
  • Make sure that if your child’s school has lockers that you’re encouraging your child to use them even if it’s not between every class.
  • If the reason your child doesn’t use a locker is because there isn’t enough time between classes, bring this up with the principal.  Your child is probably not the only one with this problem.

Change the Bag

  • Your child may want that backpack with her favorite superhero emblazoned on it, but it may not be the best choice.
  • Find a pack that is lightweight and size appropriate.  It should have wide shoulder straps, lots of compartments, and a waist belt.  Some even have padding to make it easier on the back. Hiking backpacks usually fit the bill if you can find them in your child’s size.
  • Don’t get a rolling backpack.  While they may seem like an ideal solution, after all, they’re a lifesaver on your own luggage but they have to be carried upstairs, they’re impossible to drag through snow, and who wants to touch them after they’ve been dragged through mud?  Some schools don’t even allow them because they’re a tripping hazard. It’s better to stick with a more traditional type of pack.

Show your Child How It’s Done.

  • Pack the heaviest books in the part of the bag that closest to your child’s back. Weigh the pack and make sure it isn’t more than 10-15% of your child’s body weight.
  • The backpack should be picked up like any other heavy object, by bending at the knees.
  • Your child should never wear the backpack over one shoulder.  Show her that both straps should be used and that the straps should be adjusted so the pack sits securely on her back.  The waist belt should be used to keep the pack from moving around.

There’s no getting around using a backpack but if worn the way they are designed to be worn, back problems can be avoided.  Along with proper backpack usage, a good diet and lots of exercise will make your child’s muscles strong and more able to handle any strain on them.

If you or your child is experiencing back pain due to heavy backpacks or any other reason, call North County Pain Relief at (314) 731-4201.  We offer several types of treatment that can provide non-invasive, non-surgical, drug-free pain relief.