STRATFORD, NJ – While backpacks are an essential – and stylish – way for children to express their personal taste as they head back to school, these over-the-shoulder carriers for books, lunches and supplies can also injure a child’s back. Dr. Danielle Cooley, an osteopathic family physician and hands-on pain care specialist from the UMDNJ-School of Osteopathic Medicine, has advice on picking the best backpack and using it properly to avoid pain or injuries.
“Children often choose backpacks that reflect their style, but parents need to be sure the one they select doesn’t also have the potential for harm,” Dr. Cooley said. “Backpacks that are too heavy or used improperly can pull on ligaments and muscles, causing aches and pains in the neck and back and resulting in dysfunction of the entire body. In severe cases, this can even contribute to deformity of the spine.”
When it comes to back safety, choosing the right backpack is critical. Here are four things to look for in the perfect backpack:
• Wide, padded, and adjustable shoulder straps. Narrow straps dig into shoulders and can cause pain, so choose backpacks with wide, padded straps. “The straps should also be adjustable so that you are able to make the backpack rest on the strongest part of the back,” Dr. Cooley said. “Failure to do so can cause misalignment, pain and a condition called sway back, or increased lumbar lordosis, which occurs when the natural curvature of the spine becomes exaggerated to compensate for the stress of carrying heavy objects.”
• Two straps. Having only one strap can cause alignment problems in the spine, but just having the two straps is not always enough. “Two straps are only effective if both straps are used,” Dr. Cooley said. This allows the weight of the backpack to be distributed evenly across the back and decrease the risk of causing a spine dysfunction.
• Padded back. The padding on the part of the backpack that touches the back should provide protection from any oddly-shaped objects inside. Padded backs also help relieve the strain of carrying heavy materials.
• Lightweight with a lot of compartments. “Backpacks that are heavy when nothing is in them do nothing but add unnecessary weight to the back,” Dr. Cooley said. “Having multiple compartments helps to distribute the weight of books and supplies more evenly.”
Once children have safe and comfortable backpacks, encourage them to do the following to prevent injuries:
• Use a locker. The more time that books and supplies are in a locker, the less time they are on your child’s back.
• Don’t wait until the last minute. Make sure your child is not waiting until the weekend to do homework. “When children wait until the end of the week to bring their work home, they are most likely to be carrying every schoolbook, significantly increasing the weight of their backpacks,” said Dr. Cooley. “Encouraging children to do homework throughout the week means multiple – but lighter – loads being carried to and from school daily.”
• Speak up when it hurts. Ask your children frequently over the first few weeks of school if they are having any back or neck pain from carrying their backpacks. “If they do, you may need to invest in a different backpack,” Dr. Cooley said. “If pain persists, contact your child’s physician.”
Another great alternative to the traditional shoulder backpack has been the development of backpacks with wheels. Unfortunately, these bags are not as “trendy” and “cool” as conventional backpacks, however they do address many of the back related issues. If your child decides to go with this option, make sure the handle is long enough to prevent excessive bending and twist and that the wheels are large enough to keep the bag balanced while pulling.
Dr. Cooley adds that some of this advice also holds true for adults. “Adults, too, need to make sure their backpacks, purses or diaper bags are not too heavy and that they are carrying them around properly. Bags or backpacks that are carried over just one shoulder or too low on the back, can cause back pain because the muscles rather than the bones are supporting the weight. While the back pain may not last, this poor posture can contribute to chronic back problems in the future.”
Source: University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey