Proper backpack use may spare children from back pain later in life

Aug 17 2011
Back pain is commonly thought of as an affliction of the mature age, but the reality is that certain habits developed during childhood can set the stage for a lifetime of spinal health issues.

In fact, children as young as 7 or 8 years old may experience back pain as a result of ill-fitting and heavy backpacks. With a new school year just around the corner, it may therefore be a good idea to review some safety tips to prepare youngsters for another year of studying that is not marred by pain and other health problems.

This is more important then ever, as electronic devices such as laptops have complemented traditional notebooks and textbooks as necessary learning tools. Unfortunately, they also compete for the scarce space in the backpack and add a significant load on to the backs of today's schoolkids.

In view of these challenges, the American Association of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS) has published guidelines regarding how children and adolescents can make the most out of their backpacks without experiencing undue muscle strains, sprains and other discomfort.

It all begins with proper packing. First, only the items necessary for the day should be carried. Also, their weight should be distributed evenly, with the biggest items closest to the back. As a rule, the total mass should not exceed 15 percent of the child's body weight, and should be less than that, if possible.

Next - what's the best way to carry a school backpack? It is common to see youngsters with backpacks slung over one shoulder, but while it may be "cool," it does little to support proper posture and spine health.

In fact, slinging the bag over one shoulder or wearing it with loose straps can cause a muscle or joint injury and pain, according to Laurel C. Blakemore, MD, spokesperson for AAOS and chief of orthopedic surgery at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, DC.

The expert suggests that strapping the backpack tightly to both shoulders is the way to go. Moreover, many backpacks feature waist straps and these should be used to further secure proper fit and maximum comfort.

AAOS has also sought to debunk some common myths, including the one that suggests that backpacks contribute to scoliosis. In reality, proper usage is completely safe, and any pain or posture problems stem from over-stuffing, ill fit and inappropriate weight distribution.

In order to drive home the importance of following these guidelines, the organization cited statistics which found that nearly 30,000 Americans were treated for injuries stemming from improper backpack use in 2010, and the most common complaints included joint dislocations, strains, sprains and bone fractures.

As always, parents are at the forefront of the efforts to ensure kids' health and well-being. If a student develops back pain, he or she should be taken to a healthcare provider to ensure that there is no serious underlying condition. After all, proper management of pain can help the child make the most of their academic experience.