Is Your Child’s Backpack Making the Grade?
While a backpack is still one of the best ways to tote homework, an overloaded or improperly worn backpack gets a failing grade, according to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). Improper backpack use can cause injury, especially to children with young, growing muscles and joints.
A study led by APTA member Shelley Goodgold, PT, associate professor of physical therapy at Simmons College in Boston, found that 55 percent of the children surveyed carried backpack loads heavier than 15 percent of their body weight, the maximum safe weight for children recommended by most experts.
“It is disturbing to find children carrying backpacks heavier than the recommended weight limit, particularly given the vulnerability of youths’ musculoskeletal systems during these growing years,” Goodgold said.
Injury can occur when a child, in trying to adapt to a heavy load, uses harmful postures such as arching the back, leaning forward or, if only one strap is used, leaning to one side. According to physical therapists, these postural adaptations can cause spinal compression and/or improper alignment, and may hamper the proper functioning of the disks between the vertebrae that provide shock absorption. A too-heavy load also causes muscles and soft tissues of the back to work harder, leading to strain and fatigue. This leaves the back more vulnerable to injury. A heavy load may also cause stress or compression to the shoulders and arms. When nerves are compressed, the child may experience tingling or numbness in the arms.
In Goodgold’s study, one-third of the children reported experiencing back pain that had caused them to visit a doctor, miss school, or abstain from physical activities. “While we do not have scientific evidence proving that heavy backpacks cause serious back or other musculoskeletal damage,” Goodgold said, “we do know that children who have back pain usually have recurrent problems, and we know that the risk of future back problems increases when a person has had one episode.”
Physical therapists recommend the following tips for safe backpack use:
- Wear both straps. Using only one strap, even with backpacks that have one strap that runs across the body, causes one shoulder to bear the weight of the bag. By wearing both shoulder straps, the weight of the pack is better distributed, and a symmetrical posture is promoted. A backpack that has padded, contoured shoulder straps will also help reduce pressure on the chest and shoulders.
- Make sure the backpack fits. It is important to pay close attention to the way a backpack is positioned on the back, and the size of the backpack should match the size of the child. Shoulder straps should fit comfortably on the shoulder and under the arms, so that the arms can move freely. The bottom of the pack should rest in the contour of the lower back. The pack should “sit” evenly in the middle of the back, not “sag down” toward the buttocks.
Physical therapists recommend the following features when selecting a backpack:
- A padded back to reduce pressure on the back and prevent the pack’s contents from digging into the child’s back;
- A waist belt to help distribute some of the load to the pelvis;
- Compression straps on the sides or bottom of the backpack that, when tightened, compress the contents of the backpack and stabilize the articles; and
- Reflective material so that the child is visible to drivers at night.
So how do you make sure that your child stays injury-free? According to Frank Johnson, SCRMC Director of Physical Rehabilitation, parents should look for the following signs that the backpack is too heavy: pain when wearing the backpack; tingling or numbness in the arms; and red marks on the shoulders.
Physical therapists are highly-educated, licensed health care professionals who can help patients reduce pain and improve or restore – in many cases without expensive surgery or the side effects of prescription medications. Patients can make an appointment directly with a physical therapist, without a physician referral. For an appointment at SCRMC or one of our community clinics, call 800-828-3627 and ask for the nearest location for physical therapy.
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Physical Therapy is a specialized practice that focuses on prevention, evaluation, treatment, rehabilitation, and performance enhancement of the physically-active individual.
The practice of sports physical therapy includes those interventions that assist the athletically-active individual in preventing injuries and then, if an injury occurs, continuing their pursuits with minimal disruptions.
Sports physical therapists are highly skilled in evaluation of active and chronic injuries. A hallmark of this practice is the assessment of surgical and non-surgical neuromusculoskeletal injuries. Included in this is the functional assessment of the individual post-injury to assist in a safe return to activity.
Education of athletes and their parents and coaches about the various preventative and management techniques previously discussed is a service that sports physical therapists provide. Sports physical therapists are also involved in educating physical therapists, other allied health professionals, and physicians in these important areas.
-American Physical Therapy Association