Michelle Rein, M.D.
Family Medicine, Prenatal Care
The backpack is as much as a part of school life as homework. Kids use backpacks to carry everything they need. Unfortunately, the weight of everything they need stuffed into an improperly worn backpack may lead to sore joints and muscles.
Many students carry backpack loads weighing more than 15 percent of their body weight, and parents are starting to hear their school-age children complaining of back pain.
Backpacks, when worn properly, are the best way to carry things, especially for long periods of time. When properly worn, a backpack is supported by the strongest muscles in the body: the back and abdominal muscles, which work together to stabilize the trunk and hold the body in proper postural alignment. Improper backpack use presents some dangers to young, still-growing joints and muscles.
Follow these general rules:
- Wear both straps. Slinging a backpack over one shoulder causes a person to lean to one side to compensate for the uneven weight, curving the spine. Over time, this can cause lower and upper back pain, strained shoulders and neck, and even functional scoliosis (curvature of the spine). Teenage girls are especially susceptible to scoliosis.
- Make sure the backpack is not too heavy. One should carry no more than 15 percent of one’s body weight in a backpack. Students of all ages seem to be carrying heavier loads, often toting a full day’s worth of textbooks and a change of clothing for after-school activities. Even when worn properly with both straps, leaning forward to compensate for extra weight can affect the natural curve in the lower back. Extra weight also may cause a rounding of the shoulders and an increased curve in the upper back. As a result, your child may experience back, shoulder and neck pain.
- Pay attention to the type of backpack. Look for backpacks with wide straps. Narrow straps can hinder circulation, causing numbness or tingling in the arms, which over time may cause weakness in the hands.
- Look for a backpack with a waist belt. Tightening the belt helps distribute the weight of the backpack more evenly. It’s also wise to consider the weight of the backpack when empty. For example, a canvas backpack will be lighter weight than leather. For children who often walk to school near traffic, parents may want to find a backpack that has reflective strips that make your child more noticeable to drivers.
Overall, you should encourage your children to wear their backpacks properly and keep it light. Have them use both straps and make frequent stops at their locker throughout the day to avoid carrying all their books at once. And leave nonessentials at home. Urge your children to tell you if they are in pain or have discomfort before a problem becomes serious.
Michelle Rein, M.D., is a family physician at Mayo Clinic Health System – Franciscan Healthcare in Caledonia.