When I pick up my children at school, I am often surprised by how full their backpack can be. A lunch, some books, extra clothes and other items that make their way into their bags can really add up to make a very heavy pack. The “rolling luggage style packs” are not much better, as they often get stuck on curbs and stairs and need to be lifted and manoeuvred over these obstacles. An improperly selected or improperly packed backpack can really be a pain-literally. It can contribute to low back, neck and shoulder pain and headaches.
Backpacks can have implications on your child’s health:
Carrying a backpack that is overweight or where the weight is not evenly distributed can result in poor posture, which can even affect the alignment of the spinal column. When the weight is too heavy, or not positioned correctly, it can contribute to muscular imbalances, muscular strains, headaches, neck and low back pain, shoulder and arm pain and pinched nerves. For example, wearing a backpack on one shoulder, can cause your child to tighten the musculature and compress their spine on the opposite side in order to keep themselves upright. It may cause your child to have a lower shoulder on the side where they carry they back, which can cause repercussions up and down the spine.
Prevention is the best medicine:
Thankfully, there are a number of things that you can do to prevent your child from having pain related to their pack.
Choose your backpack with care:
When you are choosing a pack, vinyl or canvas is best. Leather may look nice but it is much heavier. Select a pack that has two wide adjustable, well-padded shoulder straps. The back of the pack should also be padded. A pack with a waist or hip strap is also helpful as it will prevent the backpack from shifting when it is in place and take some of the load off the shoulders. This is especially important for those that have long walks to school and heavier packs relative to their body size. It should also have numerous pockets so that smaller heavy items (ie. water bottles) are not shifting as your child walks. Make sure that your pack fits your child properly and that it is not too tight around your child’s arms. This can contribute to neck, upper back and arm pain. Also, make sure that the backpack is the right size for your child. Sometimes the bigger the pack that we have the more we tend to put in it. Get a pack that is big enough to fit everything that your child needs day to day, but keep your child’s body size in mind. Often, I see small year 1 children with packs that are almost bigger than them. A good well-padded backpack in some instances may cost you a little more, however generally the good ones will last you more than one year.
Pack your backpack with care:
To help avoid a sore neck or back, it is important to pack your backpack correctly. Try to only bring essential items back and forth to school and make sure that the weight is evenly distributed. Load the heaviest items closest to your child’s body and put the awkward shaped items towards the outside of the pack and away from your child’s body. The backpack should be no more than 10-15% of your child’s body weight. Do an experiment. Pack your child’s backpack and then weigh it to get an idea of whether or not you are within your correct weight range. If not, try to think of some items to leave behind. On the Sunshine Coast, particularly in summer, it is not uncommon for children to have a large water bottle or two and a large ice pack in their lunch to keep it cool. Check with your child’s teacher and see if there are places where your child can fill up their water bottle at school so that they do not need to bring as much water with them.
Putting on your backpack:
With younger children, it is a good idea to help them with this, at least the first few times. Place the backpack at waist height on a flat surface such as a chair or desk. Place one arm through the shoulder strap and then the other. Adjust the straps to fit. Do not forget when you are lifting anything, to bend your knees and lift with your legs to avoid straining your back. If you are driving your child to school, it is best to place the pack on an empty seat, or on the floor where it is easy to remove. Wedging it in between the seats in the back can sometimes make it hard to pull out, particularly if your child is in a hurry at the drop off zone.
Wearing your backpack:
Wear your backpack with both shoulder straps in place and adjusted so that they are fitted properly. If the straps are sliding off your child’s shoulders it may cause them to tighten the muscles in their upper back or neck unnecessarily. Allow enough space between the backpack and your child’s back that you can slide your hand in between. Using the waist strap will also add some stability.
More than 50% of children will experience at least one episode of low back pain by the time that they are a teenager. Research indicates that improper use of backpacks could be a large contributing factor. If your child does complain of back pain, neck pain, headaches, or numbness or weakness in his or her arms or legs make sure to get help to prevent future problems.
“Pack it light. Wear it right”. The Ontario Chiropractic Association.