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Backpack basics for back to school

August 31, 2015
Kevin Smith and Peter Ouellette with backpacks

It’s back to school, which means that students from elementary through high school will be carrying backpacks weighed down with textbooks, binders, laptops, lunch and school sports gear.

“As essential as backpacks are, if they are too heavy or worn incorrectly, they can strain muscles and joints and may cause back pain for the over 79 million students in the United States that carry them,” said Peter Ouellette, DPT, MEd, OCS, Physical Therapist and Manager of Baystate Rehabilitation Care at Baystate Mary Lane Hospital.

Despite their usefulness, a major study recently reported by the American Physical Therapy Association has found that more than 50 percent of children surveyed carry backpacks that are too heavy.

“Make sure your child uses both straps when carrying the backpack,” said Dr. Ouellette. “Using one strap shifts the weight to one side and causes muscle pain and posture problems. The spine consists of 33 bones called vertebrae. Between the vertebrae are discs that act as natural shock absorbers. When shoulders bear a heavy weight incorrectly, it can cause the spine to compress unnaturally causing poor posture, an aching back, and shoulders, and weakened muscles.”

“The American Occupational Therapy Association recommends that a loaded backpack weigh no more than 10 to 15 percent of the student’s body weight,” said Kevin Smith, Occupational Therapist (OT) and Certified Hand Therapist at Baystate Mary Lane Hospital. “Lighter is always better. As an example, a child weighing 100 pounds should not carry a bag heavier than 15 pounds.”

Smith reminds parents to keep a close eye on their children and how they carry their back pack.

“If you notice that your child is slouching or leaning, or if your child complains about any kind of pain or numbness in the back or shoulders, the weight of the backpack may be too heavy,” said Smith offering the following helpful reminders to prevent backpack issues and injuries:

• Always select a backpack that is the right size.

• Adjust the shoulder straps so the backpack rests comfortably approximately two inches above the waist. A bag too high or low on the back can pull awkwardly on the shoulders.

• Distribute weight evenly. Load heaviest items closest to the back and balance materials so that the wearer can easily stand up straight.

• Keep in mind that bigger is not necessarily better. Parents should buy the best-designed backpack possible for their child. The more room there is in a backpack, the more your child will carry-and the heavier the backpack will be.

• Regularly clearing out unnecessary items is the best way to ensure that the load remains bearable.

Not all backpack related injuries are a result of overload. “Studies have shown that many emergency room visits made by school age children involve injuries received to their feet, wrists and elbows from tripping over backpacks,” said Smith. “In addition, carrying a heavy pack changes the way kids walk and can increase the risk of falling, particularly on stairs or other places where the backpack puts the student off balance. By following these backpack guidelines, you can help your child establish good habits to avoid pain now and later in life.”

Dr. Peter Ouellette and Kevin Smith are part of the Baystate Rehabilitation Care team at Baystate Mary Lane Hospital which includes physical therapists, an occupational therapist, speech/language/swallowing pathologist and audiologist. The team provides a full range of rehabilitation services to help patients regain function and achieve recovery. For more information about Baystate Rehabilitation Care services at Baystate Mary Lane Hospital call (413) 967-2180.