Wellness Articles

September Is… “National Backpack Safety Awareness Month”

It’s back to school time and kids are getting ready to fill up their backpacks. Today, more and more schoolwork is given to kids and as a result, their backpacks get heavier and heavier. The heavier the backpack is, the more unnecessary stress is placed on the child’s spine. This can cause the misalignment of vertebrae of the spine (vertebral subluxations), which if left uncorrected can have serious health consequences.

It may be difficult to control the amount of schoolwork your child receives. However, there are things that you can do to ensure that their backpack does not cause damage to their spine.

First … Limit the amount of weight that is placed in the child’s backpack at one time. Usually ten percent of the child’s body weight is appropriate. Occasionally, schools will allow you to purchase a second set of books so that it is not necessary for the child to carry the books back and forth between home and school.

Second … Get you child a spinal checkup on a regular basis. Carrying heavy backpacks can cause poor posture. Posture is one of the most overlooked keys to best health and performance. Good posture improves fitness, thinking ability, emotional state and general vitality. Parents who appreciate the importance of checkups for their child’s teeth, hearing, eyes, ears, nose and throat often draw a blank when it comes to their child’s spine. In fact, a spinal checkup could be one of the most important of your child’s life. Schedule an appointment with your family chiropractor today. Start the school year off on a healthy note. Bring your children in for a spinal checkup and give them the best chance to get healthy and stay healthy throughout the school year.

Backpack Safety

I am acutely aware that school is in full swing.  Moms have been pouring into our office requesting letters for their children to be able to carry safer backpacks to school this year.  Although it came around more quickly than usual, it’s that time of year again – new school schedules, football games, band practice, studying for exams, and homework.  All of this means that your kids will be carrying heavy loads all around with them in their backpacks, and this can pose a serious health risk to them if backpack safety is not addressed by you. 

I have seen a number of children in our area with scoliosis, a lateral curvature of the spine, and they certainly don’t need to be carrying backpacks loaded with heavy books and other items all over the place.  I took the liberty of weighing a child’s pack in our office just before school was out last year, and was astonished to find that a 60 pound child was carrying a hefty 27 pounds on his back.  This could bring about strained muscles at the very least and become quite uncomfortable for him.  I have learned that some children are “punished” by being denied access to their lockers, thereby forcing them to carry all of their books around all the time during their time of punishment.  Some children think it is cool to play the role of martyr and compete for parents’ attention by seeing how many books they are “required” to bring home.  Either way, children are carrying too much around on their backs.  Although children definitely heal faster than we do, long-term stress-type injuries can occur when they require their bodies to do more than they were designed to do.  According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, there were over 12,000 visits to emergency rooms alone in 1998 for backpack-related injuries to 5- to 18-year-olds.  This figure does not take into account the number of visits to general pediatricians, orthopedists, or chiropractors. 

There are several sources for the safely allowed amount of weight for children to carry on their backs.  The range is 10 to 20 percent of their body weight.  Keep in mind the fact that children’s bodies vary in muscular composition, and some are inherently heavier than others and have larger frames.  According to Mark D. Widome, M.D., a general pediatrician and professor of pediatrics at Penn State’s College of Medicine in Hershey, PA, a good rule of thumb is to allow 15 percent of the child’s body weight in his backpack.  This means that the 60 pound child I mentioned before should carry no more than 9 pounds on his back.   

Weight is not the only hazard with backpacks.  It seems that kids think it is “cool” to wear the backpacks on only one shoulder.  The trouble with this is rather obvious, but kids do it anyway.  A functional scoliosis, which is one that develops as a result of some outward stress as opposed to a congenital scoliosis which one is born with, can develop as a result of carrying heavy weight on one side of the body rather than distributing weight evenly.  There are two solutions to this problem: 1) distribute weight evenly, and 2) carry the weight for equal amounts of time on both sides of the body.  Most of us pick up objects habitually with one hand or the other, so solution #2 is not really a viable one unless you are very well-disciplined and can remember to pick up the heavy object with the opposite hand each time you carry it.  There is usually no one to walk behind your children all day at school and remind them to switch hands.

Backpacks can become a problem for those other than their carriers, too.  Imagine walking down a very crowded hallway full of children when one of them suddenly turns to yell at a friend and swings her 20 pound pack, hitting you squarely on the shoulder.  This is a real issue in crowded schools.  Kids are unaware of the bulk on their backs, and can pose hazards to their neighbors.  Bulky packs are a problem in the classroom when they aren’t in use.  Unless plans have been made for storage, backpacks are often dropped beside desks and create tripping hazards.  The best solution to this and many other backpack-related issues is to purchase a small backpack which can easily fit under a desk or chair.  This will leave the aisles clear and make it much safer for everyone to walk in them. 

Backpacks are available with lumbar supports and multiple compartments to help distribute heavy loads more evenly.  For heavier loads, a hip strap is available to help keep the pack close to the body. This allows some of the weight to be carried by the hips rather than overloading the back.  Look for a pack with wide, padded shoulder straps that are easy to adjust.  The American Chiropractic Association has information regarding a line of backpacks made by an Australian company for Samsonite.  The line of packs, called Chiropak, is designed for comfort, efficiency, and protection for the spine against the damage that can be caused by overstuffed packs.   The correct way to carry heavy loads is to carry them close to the body, so heavier books should be inserted into the pack first.  To decide which pack is best for your child, have the child try it on for comfort first, then put a few books or something moderately heavy in it to see how your child will go about carrying his or her load.  Make sure the pack can be carried with the child standing upright and not leaned over forward or off to one side.

Remember that “as the twig is bent so grows the tree.”  Take the extra time to weigh your child’s backpack.  Discuss these safety issues now, and you just might save some serious trouble down the road.  Treat your body and those of your children well.