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Backpack safety for better spine health

Kids from kindergarten through college are once again filling their backpacks with books and supplies for the upcoming school year. Unfortunately, for many students that also means dealing with back problems.

Carrying excessive weight in a backpack, or distributing it incorrectly, leads to wear and tear on the joints, ligaments and muscles in the neck, back, shoulders and hips. Kids’ growing bodies often don’t have the strength needed to haul all that weight around – leading to pain, stiffness and a reduced range of motion. These effects can spread to different parts of the body as other muscles work to compensate.

With the new school year comes an increase in spine-related problems among students of all ages.

Over time, toting these heavy loads improperly every day can cause chronic upper body pain, herniated discs in the spine, an altered posture and gait and even pain in the feet, according to orthopedic experts.

“It’s an annual problem, and we actually see it getting worse … especially among kids with a predisposition to back issues, such as scoliosis,” said Dr. Allison Harvey, D.C., a senior clinician at Montgomery Health Center and assistant professor at Logan University. “Some kids are lugging around 30% of their body weight on their backs.”

Harvey advised that the ideal goal is to limit the backpack’s weight to around 10% of a child’s body weight, which usually isn’t realistic, she acknowledged. That’s why selecting a good quality backpack and wearing it properly are keys to preventing spine issues.

“I think spending a little more money and getting a pack with a leather bottom that can hold the weight a little better is important. It should also have wide, more-padded shoulder straps and a waist strap. It’s one of the school supplies that I would not skimp on,” she said.

As far as loading a backpack is concerned, Harvey said the heaviest items should be loaded toward the back, closest to the child’s center of gravity. Packs with multiple side and front pockets are preferable so the contents can be distributed more evenly.

Fitting a backpack properly entails adjusting the shoulder straps so it feels snug, but not too tight, and doesn’t sag downward. When wearing the backpack, the child should keep both straps on. “The one-strap look favored by many kids can really start to have an impact in terms of joint, muscle and neck issues,” Harvey said.

Likewise, waist straps often are not considered cool by classmates, “but clipping and tightening them really does change the whole load on the back,” Harvey said.

If you notice that your child is bending forward under the loaded backpack’s weight, you know they’re carrying too much, Harvey cautioned.

“Many kids are already battling anterior head carriage – also called ‘texting neck’ – from so much time spent looking at their phones; so you want to try to eliminate problems with forward posture.”

Harvey’s other recommendations for protecting kids’ spine health include cleaning out backpacks weekly to get rid of unnecessary weight, and when students have multiple items to transport – like musical instruments, lunchboxes, or laptops – those should be carried separately in another tote if possible to balance the load.

Asked about possible alternatives to backpacks, Harvey said rolling bags can be an option, but often don’t provide a better solution, especially when it snows. Dragging these heavy bags with one arm causes shoulder and back strain, along with lifting issues because they must be carried up staircases, onto buses and through overcrowded hallways.

Messenger bags worn across the body – a backpack alternative recently favored by high schoolers – are generally not a good choice either because they tend to create numbness and tingling in the arms and hands.

“It’s like having your shoulder strapped down for extended periods of time,” she explained.

Harvey said many chiropractors offer loaded backpack safety checks to make sure the packs are fitted correctly. If back pain does occur after the new school year begins, she suggested that parents should have their kids checked  – the sooner the better.

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