Backpack Safety: Worth Its Weight in Gold

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backpackEach year 5,000 kids visit the ER due to backpack-related injuries. And 14,000 are treated for them every year, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Lighten your student’s load with our expert tips for backpack safety.

By Dina Barry, P.T., M.P.T., O.C.S., Physical Therapist at Renown Physical Therapy & Rehab

Back to school is in full swing. It’s time once again to trade in vacations, weekday lake excursions and summer barbecues for full schedules, homework and shuttling the kids to extracurricular activities. For the kids it means studying, maintaining grades, juggling school with sports or music lessons and squeezing in time with friends. It’s a heavy load to carry.

Given how busy young students, are it’s not surprising that many are hauling too much literal weight throughout the school day. The culprit? Their backpacks. Crammed with notebooks, textbooks, lunch, a water bottle and sports equipment, the pounds add up and create potential health risks for kids. Their developing muscles and skeletal system simply can’t handle the pressure.

Each year 5,000 kids visit the ER due to backpack-related injuries. And 14,000 are treated for them every year, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Children should carry only 10-15 percent of their body weight. But too often they’re strapping on heavily loaded backpacks that strain muscles and joints, lead to severe back, shoulder and neck pain and cause poor posture. An unwieldy, heavy backpack also skews a child’s center of gravity, increasing risk of falls and injury.

Backpack Safety Tips

Your child can carry a backpack comfortably and without injury. You just need to choose the right one. Kids need backpacks made to fit their current size, which may mean changing it out every year or two. Worn properly, a backpack should sit just below the shoulder blades and extend to the waist, hugging the body so there’s no space between your child’s back and the backpack.

Thin straps strain the shoulders and can lead to joint pain, so choose a backpack with wider, padded straps. Both straps should be worn at all times to avoid undue pressure on one side of the spine. Adjust the straps so your child can get the backpack on and off without difficulty, but make sure they’re not too loose.

A backpack with multiple compartments helps distribute weight evenly. Pack heavier items toward the back and low, closest to your child’s body. Do a check each day to make sure your child carries only necessary items. Also consider buying an extra set of books to keep at home so your child doesn’t have to haul textbooks back and forth. 

You’ll know a backpack is too heavy if your child struggles to pick it up, get it on and off, or if wearing it leaves red marks on their shoulders, alters their gait or affects the ability to stand up straight. Complaints from your child of weakness or numbness in the arms or legs can also point to a problem. While rolling backpacks take the load off the spine and eliminate the need to lift, they are not encouraged. Because a rolling backpack is pulled with one arm, it places unnecessary stress on one side of the body. Additionally, they can be a tripping hazard in crowded school hallways and classrooms.

Safety for Lifting or Carrying

Potential for injury exists for both kids and adults with any heavy lifting or carrying — using proper technique is a must. A few tips and reminders: You should never lift from a standing position with locked knees. Instead, stand close to the object with your feet apart. Engage your core as you bend from the knees and hips, squatting to grasp your load. Hold the object close to your body as you straighten your legs to stand up without bending your back. Move your feet instead of twisting your spine to move the object from one place to another.

Always consult your doctor with any concerns about protecting the muscles, joints and spine. Sales associates at sporting goods stores are a great resource for properly fitting a backpack. If questions persist, consult a physical therapist.

This story was also published in the Reno Gazette-Journal’s Health Source on July 31, 2016.

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