Going back to school means a new class and a new teacher and new supplies. It could also mean new—or increased—back pain. These days, kids are carrying more in their backpacks than ever, between their books, supplies, sports gear, and tablets and laptops. All that weight on their still-growing bodies can be one of the causes of back pain, strain, and even long-lasting injury, especially when backpacks are not worn according to recommendations.
“As practical as backpacks are, they can strain muscles and joints and may cause back pain if they’re too heavy or are used incorrectly,” said KidsHealth.
Specifically, back injuries “can occur when a child, in trying to adapt to a heavy load, uses harmful postures such as arching the back, leaning forward or, if only one strap is used, leaning to one side,” said the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA).
“According to physical therapists, these postural adaptations can cause spinal compression and/or improper alignment, and may hamper the proper functioning of the disks between the vertebrae that provide shock absorption. A too-heavy load also causes muscles and soft tissues of the back to work harder, leading to strain and fatigue. This leaves the back more vulnerable to injury.”
Here’s are the factors that can contribute to back pain related to backpack wearing.
Wearing it incorrectly
Have you ever seen your child carrying their backpack slung over one shoulder? This is popular among many kids, but that doesn’t make it a good choice.
“Kids who wear their backpacks over just one shoulder — as many do, because they think it looks better or just feels easier — may end up leaning to one side to offset the extra weight. They might develop lower and upper back pain and strain their shoulders and neck,” said KidsHealth.
Even a backpack worn over both shoulders can cause backaches if the items inside the backpack are packed unevenly.
“When worn correctly, the weight in a backpack is evenly distributed across the body,” said KidsHealth. But even distribution isn’t always top of mind for kids who are hurrying from class to class or simply shoving everything in there at the end of the day. Teaching your kids the importance of loading their backpack correctly is key. Here are a few tips:
- “Pack heavier items closest to the center of the back,” said the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP)
- Distribute items among the backpack’s pockets to help to spread the load.
Too much stuff
Recommendations for backpack weight say that it shouldn’t exceed 15–20% of a child’s body weight. Some leading back specialists cap that weight closer to 10% for maximum safety, especially if your child is on the small side. Leaving some books and supplies at home or in a locker and only taking what is needed on a daily basis is key.
Not sure how much the backpack weighs? Have your child get on the scale with, and then without, it. If it’s in the danger zone, consider this: “The spine is made of 33 bones called vertebrae, and between the vertebrae are discs that act as natural shock absorbers,” said KidsHealth. “When a heavy weight, such as a backpack filled with books, is incorrectly placed on the shoulders, the weight’s force can pull a child backward. To compensate, a child may bend forward at the hips or arch the back, which can cause the spine to compress unnaturally. The heavy weight might cause some kids to develop shoulder, neck, and back pain.”
Tips for choosing the right backpack:
With so many options available, it’s hard to know which backpack will make the grade. Follow these tips to protect your back:
- Look for thick, padded shoulder straps.
- Make sure the pack can sit comfortably close to the body when the straps are tightened, but don’t make the straps so tight that they dig in.
- Look for a padded back, which will “reduce pressure on the back and prevent the pack’s contents from digging into the child’s back,” said the APTA.
- The size of the pack should match the size of the child—a backpack that’s too large can become a hazard if your kid can’t easily maneuver with it on.
- “Adjust the pack so that the bottom sits at the waist,” said the AAP.
- A waist belt can also “help distribute some of the load to the pelvis,” said the APTA.
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