Nothing says “fall” quite like brightly colored leaves littering the sidewalk as kids head to school carrying backpacks stuffed with books, lunches and other essential items. The image of a youngster, slightly off-balance from the weight of an overstuffed backpack, might bring a chuckle. The packs seem more appropriate for a mountaineer heading off on an expedition, rather than an 8-year-old off to third grade.
The visuals are sweet. But, in reality, overloaded backpacks can cause problems such as back, shoulder and neck pain for kids who carry them. It’s easy to figure out why. Studies indicate the average student backpack weighs more than 15 pounds, and that a significant number – 18 percent of students – wear packs that exceed 15 percent of their weight.
One in four students experiences back pain for more than 15 days during the school year. The problem is made worse, doctors say, because most students don’t get enough exercise to adequately strengthen their back, shoulder and neck muscles.
The medical jury is out on whether overloaded backpacks can leave some kids with lingering physiological problems such as scoliosis, a curvature of the spine, and spondylolysis, a stress fracture in the back. Some doctors dismiss those notions, while others believe backpacks do contribute to these conditions.
One risk that’s not under debate is that an overloaded backpack can cause your child to lose balance and fall at school or become a hazard to other students in a crowded hallway.
Finding the Right Fit
In any case, an overloaded backpack is an avoidable invitation to physical discomfort. To tell if your child’s backpack fits correctly, have her try on her loaded pack and note how it fits her body. A loosely-worn pack can pull your child backward. Shoulder straps often are casually draped over the torso and offer little help in securing the pack. And waist belts usually are left hanging to the sides. To properly configure your child’s backpack, first connect and adjust all straps so they fit tightly, but comfortably against the body. That will protect against muscle strain. The waist belt needs to be adjusted and used, too.
Make sure that the backpack’s weight is evenly distributed inside. Bulging items or sharp book edges can cause bruising.
Most important, though, is to do an inventory of what’s inside the backpack. Do a weigh-in. If the pack comes in a more than 10 percent of your child’s weight, it’s time to shed pounds. Determine just how many books need to be lugged back and forth from home. Encourage your student to leave behind that iPad or video game device that’s most likely not allowed in class, anyway. And if you find gym shoes and a separate change of PE clothes stuffed inside, ask your child to use a separate bag.
School rules vary on whether a student can access their locker during class breaks. If allowed, get your child in the habit of depositing books in their locker when they aren’t needed.
If you’ll soon purchase a backpack for your student, keep these tips handy:
- Thick shoulder pads are ideal for preventing back fatigue. Make sure the bag has two straps, not one. While one-strap bags that drape across the front have become popular, they’re not ideal.
- Backpacks are not “one size fits all.” Ask for help in finding a backpack that is age and weight appropriate.
- If your child’s school is all on one level, consider choosing a pack with wheels.
Your Providence Medical Group pediatrician can answer questions about your child’s well-being – even when it comes to safe backpacks. Just ask.