Backpacks: Health Issue, Not Fashion Statement

By THOMAS J. PARR, M.D.

Teaching youngsters to shop the sales for back-to-school clothing is a great idea, but not such a good idea for the backpack.

While your sons or daughters will be looking at the backpack as a fashion statement, parents need to look at it with an entirely different set of eyes.

In January, 2010, the medical professional journal, “Spine,” reported on a recent MRI study regarding the effects school backpacks have on healthy children’s spines.

“This is the first upright MRI study to document reduced disc height and greater lumbar asymmetry for common backpack loads in children.”

The conclusion supported what has been suspected by pediatricians and orthopedic surgeons for a long time: “Backpack loads are responsible for a significant amount of back pain in children, which in part, may be due to changes in lumbar disc height or curvature.”

Dr. Christine Ho, a pediatric orthopedic specialist at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, has said, “The extra stress placed on the spine and shoulder from heavy loads is causing children to develop adult-like back problems. The most common injuries are muscle strains and, in extreme cases, slipped discs. Some injuries could lead to long term conditions if not avoided.”

It is important to select a durable, very lightweight backpack, appropriate for your child’s size and age. Be sure the two shoulder straps are wide and padded to help distribute the weight and to prevent digging into the shoulders. Narrow shoulder straps will cause pain and restrict circulation to the arms. A waist strap is also beneficial because it will help distribute the weight more evenly on the body. Also look for a backpack with a little extra padding against the student’s back to protect against poking, sharp objects.

If your student does not have to go up and down stairs during the school day to change classes, you might consider a rolling backpack, especially if the load is going to be too heavy for your child’s age and weight.

Next, fill the backpack with the items needed during the school day and weigh it. Then weigh your child.

The loaded backpack should not weigh more than about 15% of what your child weighs. (Child’s weight x .15 = Max. backpack weight) We used to say up to 20%, but the American Academy of Pediatricians is now recommending only 15%.

Your students are going to be adding their own special items to the backpack and not cleaning it out frequently. Parents should therefore repeat the weight test regularly as a precaution.

Put the loaded backpack on your child and adjust both shoulder straps to where they will hold the backpack close to the body. Adjust the waist strap as well.

Teach your student to use both shoulder straps at all times, even though he or she may think using only one strap “has a better look.” Also explain why it is important to put the heaviest items in the part of the backpack that will be next to his or her body for better weight distribution.

Train yourself to watch your child’s posture throughout the school year while wearing the backpack.

The posture should always be fully upright. If you see bending too far forward, there is too much weight in the backpack for your child’s size and muscle strength.

If you see leaning to one side, either the backpack is not loaded properly or it is not being worn correctly.

Parents should also talk to the schools about what the schools can do to allow students more access to their lockers so the backpack load can be reasonable throughout the school day.

This is a student health issue, not a convenience issue, so the schools should be willing to work with the parents in resolving this potential access problem.

And do not ignore any complaints from your child about back pain.

Pain is a warning sign that something is wrong. Seek medical evaluation as soon as possible from your pediatrician or orthopedic surgeon.

You do not want to learn later that a life-long back problem could have been prevented if it had been treated when it first happened.

Dr. Thomas Parr, an orthopedic surgeon in Sugar Land, can be reached at 281-491-7111.Visit www.tomparrmd.net for more information.


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