Many children, teens and adults heading back to school this fall are burdened with a pretty weighty subject: their backpacks.
Children and adolescents are particularly at risk of injury from overloaded backpacks. The National Safety Council, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and the American Chiropractic Association all suggest that parents pay attention to the kind of backpack their children are carrying, the way they’re wearing it — and just how many pounds they’re hauling around.
Recommended features to look for when shopping for a backpack include a padded back, multiple pockets to allow even distribution of weight and two shoulder straps. Using both shoulder straps is especially important to ensure weight is evenly distributed.
“Backpack safety is an important, proactive issue,” says Dr. Heath McKinley, a chiropractor with a family practice in Chicago’s North Center neighborhood. “In children under the age of 13, it is not common to notice symptoms. Structural alignment issues are like cavities. You can have them a very long time before symptoms like muscle aches, back pain, or headaches become an issue.”
Often the problem is that children are stuffing way too much in their backpacks and not complaining about the load.
McKinley recommends that a backpack, contents and other items carried during a typical school day amount to no more than 19 percent of a student’s body weight. For an 85-pound 12-year-old, that’s still more than 16 pounds. The fact that many children and adolescents are hauling around much more than that should be cause for concern.
“Short-term consequences include misalignment, which can cause anything from foot, knee, ankle, hip, back, shoulder or neck pain, depending on how the body is compensating from the poor weight distribution,” McKinley says.
Carrying heavy backpacks has long-term effects
Long-term issues could involve scoliosis, degenerative disc and joint disease, as well as nerve issues that lead to migraines and headaches, numbness in the arms, loss of quality sleep, and even complications in those diagnosed with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders, he says.
“I’ve also seen high school kids taking pain relievers regularly for low back pain or neck pain, and the parents think it’s because of football or soccer,” McKinley says. “While sports injuries can be a culprit for these symptoms, [the condition] is more likely to develop over time from lack of attention to posture in the younger years.”
The good news, McKinley says, is that these conditions are not permanent if identified and handled early. Accordingly, he recommends that back-to-school physicals include a chiropractic assessment.
McKinley also offers these practical steps for lightening your student’s load:
— Don’t carry all textbooks to and from school every day.
— Leave textbooks in lockers or at home unless you really need them.
— Consider photocopying relevant portions of textbook chapters and bring those instead.
As far as which backpack to buy, many meet the recommendations mentioned above. Also, the American Chiropractic Association endorses several made by The North Face, including Recon and Surge.
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