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Backpack Basics: A Weighty Issue

Backpacks should not exceed 10 to 15 percent of a child's body weight.

Backpack Basics: A Weighty Issue
Written by Kathleen F. Miller

Back-to-school shopping lists always have one item in common: a new backpack. 
And 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. Also, some schools offer no lockers, so your child may be dragging around a Sherpa-sized pack all day, potentially causing pain and damage to his or her growing spine. 

Pain You Can Prevent

Dr. Stefanie Haugen is a parent of two who trained at Logan College of Chiropractic in St. Louis, MO and 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 says Haugen, including, “strained muscles and joints, headaches, forward head posture and serious back pain, just to name a few."

Haugen says 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. While there are many causes of back pain, backpack caused pain is a serious, yet preventable cause,” she says.

The Right Way To Wear A Backpack

Many students do not carry their backpacks properly, says Haugen.

“Do not sling it over one shoulder and don’t let it ride low on the back,” she advises. 

Avoid letting your student use too big of a backpack, cautions Haugen. 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 says parents should encourage children to not “carry a locker's worth of books to home and back to school everyday. Have them only carry what is needed for the day.” Also, she advised placing the heavier books closest to the back, in the closest compartment to the back for the best distribution of weight.

Haugen says keeping children free of injury starts with getting the proper size of backpack with wide shoulder straps. “Shoulder straps should be cinched up with the backpack snug against their back, now hung low over their low back, pulling back on the spine. A backpack’s shoulder-strap anchor points should rest one to two inches below the top of the shoulders,” she says.

She recommends several packs designed or endorsed by Doctors of Chiropractic. Air Pack brand backpacks, which her own kids use, which are specifically designed to distribute weight better. Air Packs are available from  Amazon.com and at some Chiropractic offices. Other recommended brands include  DC packs, Targus  RakGear backpack’s and  North Face.

“Their backpack shouldn’t exceed 10 to 15 percent of their body weight. An 80-pound kid shouldn’t be lugging around a 12-pound backpack on a regular basis,” Haugen says. It is ok, says Haugen, for kids to haul heavier packs occasionally, like on family hikes or camping trip. 

She advises kids to pick up heavy objects such as backpacks and instruments by bending down and using their legs to lift the weight, not by bending over and pulling up. She says parents should avoid having a child twist around, such as when exiting the car, to try and pick up a heavy backpack or instrument case and haul it up and over a seat back. 

Haugen says maintaining proper posture is important for kids and teens and that this generation often has “video game posture” of shrugged shoulders and rounded backs as they hunch over laptops and video game equipment.

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, or your family doctor or another posture specialist,” Haugen says.

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