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Keeping backs healthy in school

Kids with backpacks

When kids head back to school, it can often be a weight off the shoulders of parents and caregivers. For the students, however, the literal weight of textbooks, folders and supplies can do some serious damage.

The risks of lugging around heavy backpacks are real. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission says from 2019 to 2021, there were around 1,200 backpack-related injuries that sent children to the emergency department per year. Keep in mind that during this time, many kids were schooling at home due to the the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. So it's safe to assume that during normal school years, backpack injuries are more prevalent.

OSF HealthCare physical therapist Kelly Bogowith cites a Simmons College study that illustrates just how common the problem is.

“Fifty-five percent who wore backpacks were wearing them beyond the safe recommendation, which is a maximum of 10 to 15% of their body weight,” says Bogowith. “Also in that study they found a third of the children were having back pain that caused them to miss school, see a physician or stay out of activities. So it’s a pretty prominent problem.”

According to Bogowith, children should never carry more than 10% of their body weight in a backpack. Too much weight can create abnormal stress on the body and result in chronic problems down the road.

“We do know that kids who have back pain tend to have recurrent back pain, and once you have one episode of back pain, you tend to have additional. So, I think it’s a concern that’s definitely worthy of a parent taking a look at with their child,” she says.

Even if the weight is right, Bogowith says wearing the backpack incorrectly can be just as damaging. She says backpacks should be worn with both straps on the shoulders, and the bottom of the backpack should land on the low back. If your child's backpack is hitting their buttocks, it is too low, and the straps need to be adjusted.

“If the child is leaning forward,  arching their back or even just complaining of neck pain, shoulder pain or back pain, those are some things to further investigate into the proper fit of the backpack and the weight,” says Bogowith.

Parents should be selective when choosing a backpack for their kids. Backpacks should have two wide, adjustable padded shoulder straps. These help distribute the weight in the backpack and keep the satchel from digging into the shoulders.

Also, look for backpacks that have many different compartments, to allow for even distribution of weight.

Following these simple steps can keep your kids’ necks, shoulders and backs safe and prevent problems down the road.

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