Avoiding Backpack Pain – Advice for Returning Students

There are basic guidelines to follow when wearing a backpack including the shape, size and weight. Carrying a backpack on one shoulder or one that is too heavy can cause damage to the spine and back pain in young students.

Is it common for kids to hurt their back just by carrying a heavy backpack?

Dr. Gregg Rubinstein: Short answer is yes. When we talk about these things, it’s interesting to me that there’s over 2,000 backpack-related injuries that are reported every year, and that doesn’t even include minor backaches that children might get, and not even mention to their parents, that might not seem serious enough to treat.

55% of students carry a backpack that’s heavier than the recommended guideline, which is 10 percent of their weight. So if a kid’s weighing 100 pounds, they shouldn’t be wearing a backpack that weighs more than 10 pounds. But on some level, it’s not even their fault because they’re required by the schools to carry these backpacks, and they need to work on that.

I know a lot of schools are now, especially as you get into higher education or going more, and they’re putting everything, all their books and everything on or just working from iPads, which at some point might actually solve a lot of the issue, but right now, a lot of kids are wearing backpacks. And it’s cumulative micro-trauma over a long period of time, and it can certainly cause problems later in life, and some stuff even more immediate, if the backpack is totally overloaded.

What are some long-term side effects of backpack pain, that kids might not be aware of?

Dr. Gregg Rubinstein: Well, the long-term effects, number one, most of these kids who are wearing these backpacks are doing a lot of growing, because they’re school-age children. So as you load the spine, the growth plates are still open in the spine until much later in life, not until they’ve completed all their growth spurts.

If you put more pressure on these growth plates, it can cause aberrant growth. If there’s uneven pressure on the growth plates, if the backpacks are uneven, that can contribute to scoliosis development. If a child already has scoliosis and you put more weight on the spine that’s developing, again, that can cause pain and misalignment.

So it’s really important to make sure that parents are looking at their kids’ backpacks, because they might not be aware of it, these long-term effects that can build up cumulatively over time.

When shopping for a new backpack, what are the basic guidelines for choosing the one that fits best?

Dr. Gregg Rubinstein: The basic guidelines, number one, I always recommend that you get one that is sized. They’re not one size fits all. An adult backpack is not going to fit on a child, and when you go into the high-end sporting goods stores and you’re looking at backpacks, they have ones that are women specific, and how tall the waist is. There’s measurements and adjustments to make, you don’t just go in and buy one off the rack.

Now that’s for a highly technical backpack. The lower-end backpacks that most kids carry should have some adjustable features, so you want to make sure that when you’re shopping that there’s padding in the shoulder straps. There’s adjustability, so they can be adjusted, so they fit properly on the child’s back. If it has a waist belt, it’s important to wear that, because that stabilizes the load. The bottom of the pack should be curved to actually fit the curves of the spine.

They come in different sizes for different ages, and you want to make sure you choose the right size pack. And as well as one that has enough room to accommodate everything and room to grow, because as the child grows, you don’t want to be buying a new backpack every year. So the adjustability is an important part of it.

You want to look at all those different things, when you’re looking at backpacks to purchase for your child.

Is there a wrong and a right way to carry a backpack?

Dr. Gregg Rubinstein: Absolutely. The most common thing that you’ll see is they’ll just sling the backpack over one shoulder. There’s two straps for a reason and they should be using both straps.

You want to make sure that you’re distributing the weight evenly over both straps, you want to wear the pack with both straps, and you want to make sure that the straps are well-padded. The shoulders and neck have a lot of blood vessels, so if you put a lot of pressure on them, the kids might get tingling or numbness. You want to adjust the strap, so it fits snugly to the child’s back. There shouldn’t be a gap between the backpack and the child’s back. It shouldn’t be hanging off. You shouldn’t be able to slide your hand in there. A pack that hangs loosely will pull the child backward and put strain on the muscles.

Again, if the backpack has a waist belt, make sure you use it, because it’ll distribute the weight more evenly. The bottom of the pack shouldn’t be going on to the child’s butt, it should fit right into the small of the back, and it should never go more than two to three, at the most four inches below the child’s waistline.

They come in different sizes for different ages and if you choose the right pack and you make the right adjustments, it shouldn’t be that bad.

How can parents help ensure kids are not hurting themselves with heavy backpacks?

Dr. Gregg Rubinstein: So that’s really important as well. One of the things that is important to know is how much stuff the kid’s actually putting in there. A parent should maybe inspect the backpack of a younger child. You want to make sure that when you’re loading the pack that the weight, the heaviest stuff, is closest to the spine and the lighter stuff is farther away from the spine. Just like when you’re lifting something, the closer it is to your body, the easier it is to lift.

You always load the heaviest items closest to the child back into the pack, you want to arrange the books and material so they don’t slide around. You want to make sure that they’re only carrying the necessary stuff and if the backpack is too heavy or tightly packed, they can carry something in their hands, which will actually offset it. You can actually give them an extra bag, rather than over-packing it and putting too much weight on the spine.

They can use another book bag or they can get one, a backpack that has wheels, so if they have to do a lot of walking, they can use an alternative position. Pull the backpack off their spine, and then just pull it and roll it. I actually have a small duffel bag that I travel with, that has backpack straps. So sometimes I’ll carry it on my back, if I get tired, I’ll pull it.

It’s good to be able to change, instead of staying in one position for long periods of time.

Learn More

To speak with Dr. Gregg Rubinstein, visit www.ChiropractorMidtown.com or call 917-534-6484 to schedule an appointment

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