The US Consumer Product Safety Commission has stated that about 14,000 children are treated each year for backpack-related injuries, with almost 5,000 needing to go to the emergency room.
Backpacks that are too heavy can create a rounding of the upper back from leaning forward, which is further worsened by increasing neck and shoulder pain, making it difficult for the body’s muscles to do their job. Lower back pain may result from leaning forward too much, and knee pain can occur due to a change in walking from the stress of an overweight backpack.
David Marshall, a physician and medical director of sports medicine at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, said scoliosis can aggravate the situation.
“The fallout from this could be missing school days due to back pain, missing certain classes (P.E.) and activities such as after-school sports, scouts and camps,” he said.
Marshall suggests keeping a second set of textbooks at home to prevent back strain. Textbooks typically weigh about 3.5 lb each. A doctor’s visit should be scheduled to catch core weakness and poor posture early on.
Rolling bags, which have become a popular choice to alleviate unwanted back strain, can pose a safety risk while walking up and down staircases.
Family physician Dr. Rob Danoff says the symptoms of a top-heavy backpack are fairly easy to spot. Listen for grunting sounds as your child puts their backpack on, or complaints of shoulders or arms “falling asleep.” Children with heavy backpacks may also have red marks on their shoulders when they take the straps off.
The Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta suggest instead that parents invest in a backpack with wide, padded straps, and insist their child use both straps. A padded waist or chest belt also could help distribute the weight more evenly. “Shoulders are not designed to hang things from,” said Dr. Elise Hewitt, president of the American Chiropractic Association’s Pediatrics Council.
The backpack should not be wider than the child, and should never weigh more than 15% of their total body weight. Heavier textbooks should be placed closest to the child’s back.
It is highly suggested that backpacks are purchased from sporting goods stores, as employees there are more often trained in fitting a backpack.
“Improperly used backpacks may injure muscles and joints and can lead to severe back, neck, and shoulder pain, as well as posture problems,” orthopaedic surgeon and AAOS spokesperson Daniel Green, MD, told The Huffington Post.
Centers around the country are doing their part by offering free backpack safety checks. The Anchor Bay Spine Center in New Baltimore, Michigan is one such center.
Dr. Niederkohr checks a variety of factors with each backpack safety check. “With backpack safety I check for the size of the bag, how much the bag weighs, and how the bag is worn. I take into consideration the height and weight of the child. Backpack safety is very easy to correct and could prevent big problems down the road. This simple evaluation can have a huge impact on your child’s health and future,” said Dr. Niederkohr. The backpack safety checks take about 5 to 10 minutes.
The center is also offering free scoliosis checks, which were dropped from school budgets around the country. According to the Scoliosis Research Society, about 10% of adolescents suffer from scoliosis.