Back to School means Back to Backpacks – Important Information for Parents and Children

When it comes to backpacks there is no doubt they are great for carrying books, binders, snacks, running shoes and other items, whether for school or recreation. The majority of the time, we don’t even think twice about our backpacks. They get crammed full and shoved in the bottom of your locker or the back seat of the car. Ultimately backpacks get abused. But can backpacks abuse you? The answer is yes. Carrying an overloaded backpack or wearing one improperly can lead to various back problems especially for teenagers and children who are particularly vulnerable as they are still growing and developing. Harmful or unnecessary strain on children’s bodies can affect their health, long term. Below is just a few reasons how.

How can backpacks cause problems?

  • Many children wear messenger bags, or wear their backpacks the wrong way by throwing them over one shoulder. This causes an uneven distribution of weight across your body. When you put a heavy weight on your shoulders in the wrong way, the weight's force can pull you backward. To compensate, you may bend forward at the hips or arch your back. This can cause your spine to compress unnaturally and affect the curve in the low back and increase the curve of the upper back.

  • Along with compensating for the weight of the bag you may end up leaning to one side to offset the extra weight. Leaning to one side can result in an adaptive curve in the spine. Carrying a backpack improperly can lead to poor posture causing upper and lower back pain or a strain in your neck and shoulders.

  • Carrying an overloaded backpack, or carrying it incorrectly can lead to spinal compression and/or improper alignment that may negatively affect the functioning of the discs between the vertebrae that provide shock absorption. With these discs being affected, the back becomes more susceptible to injury.

  • Wearing a backpack that has tight, narrow straps that are constantly digging into your shoulders can pinch nerves and interfere with circulation. Putting stress or compression on the shoulders and arms, that is in turn compressing the nerves can lead to tingling or numbness in the arms and eventual weakness in the arms or hands.

How to reduce back pain?

Reduce strain by using and fitting a backpack that works for you rather than against you. The Canadian Physiotherapy Association recommends the selection and use of backpacks with the following features:

  • A Padded back – to reduce pressure and prevent the pack’s contents from digging into your back.

  • Padded, contoured, shoulder and chest straps – to help reduce pressure and balance the weight. Look for a backpack with thickly padded adjustable shoulder straps (2 inches wide) and an extra hip strap. Adjust the shoulder straps so the bottom of the pack sits two inches above your waist

  • A Waist belt or hip strap – to help distribute some of the load to the pelvis. The waist belt sends the weight of your pack down through your legs. Since your legs are more used to carrying weight, you won’t get tired as quickly.

  • Compression straps – on the sides or bottom of the backpack to help compress the contents of the backpack and stabilize the articles. Pack by weight, not size. Instead of folders or binders, put the heaviest books closest to your back.

  • Reflective material – for visibility to drivers at night.

Tips for Using a Backpack Safely

If worn correctly and not overloaded, a backpack is supported by back and the abdominal muscles, which are some of the strongest muscles in the body. The muscle groups work together to ensure you have proper balance and postural alignment. If the backpack is a struggle to get on, you’re leaning forward when carrying it, and its causing back pain, here are some Canadian Physiotherapy Association recommended tips for safe backpack use.

  • Use both shoulder straps to help distribute the weight of the backpack evenly and to promote a more normal posture. Stand tall with your head and neck aligned with your shoulders.

  • Make sure the backpack isn’t too heavy. When choosing a backpack, look for one made of lightweight materials, like canvas, to reduce the weight you will be carrying. A full backpack should never weigh more than 15 per cent of your body weight. If you can’t carry your backpack and talk without getting out of breath, you’re carrying too much.

  • Fit the backpack to the person, not the person to the backpack. When buying a backpack, make sure it is not oversized ‘to carry more’. The shoulder straps should fit comfortably and not dig in to the shoulder or arm, allowing the arms to move freely. The bottom of the pack should rest in the contour of the lower back. The pack should “sit” evenly in the middle of the back, not “sag down” toward the buttocks.

Become a Proactive Parent

If you notice your child complaining about back pain, saying they have tingling or numbness in the arms or red marks on their shoulders, it is important that you investigate the problem. Teach your child how to pack a backpack, bring only the items they need as opposed to everything. Pack the heavy objects closest to the body and make sure when your child is picking up the bag they are using their leg muscles and bending their knees. If your child is in pain seek the assistance of a physiotherapist in order to reverse the problem before it becomes severe.

How Can Physiotherapy Help With Back Pain?

Physiotherapists are healthcare professionals who help people of all ages and lifestyles with a wide range of injuries, strains and dysfunctions. With their applied knowledge and understanding of the human body, physiotherapists are able to help you increase your mobility, relieve pain, build strength and improve balance and cardiovascular function. Physiotherapists not only treat injuries, they also teach you how to prevent the onset of pain or injury that can limit your activity. Through providing simple neck, shoulders and back exercises and stretches your child will keep muscles flexible and relaxed, their joints will stay mobile and tension and strain will be reduced leading to less pain and overall a healthier transition back to school.

References

Ontario Physiotherapy Association. (2015). Backpacks: causing a pain in the back? Retrieved from http://www.opa.on.ca/pdfs/BackPackinfo.pdf

Spine-Health. (2012). Tips to prevent back pain from kids’ backpacks. Retrieved from http://www.spine-health.com/wellness/ergonomics/tips-prevent-back-pain-kids-backpacks

Teens Health. (2015). Backpack basics. Retrieved from http://kidshealth.org/teen/school_jobs/school/backpack.html#

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