Backpack Misuse in Children Can Lead to Chronic Back Pain
With the new school year starting last week for many Brookfield, Wauwatosa and New Berlin-area students (and this week for the rest of them), it’s a good time to talk about backpacks and the disturbing back pain trend that’s emerging among U.S. kids.
There’s been a marked increase in the number of children visiting chiropractors for back, neck and shoulder pain over the past two decades, with surveys reporting that up to 64% of children suffer from intermittent spine pain. At Ascent Chiropractic, the first question we ask these patients is “Do you wear a heavy backpack at school?” The answer is almost always “Yes.”
It’s not uncommon for parents to tell me their 85 lb. child is walking back and forth to school wearing a backpack weighing 35 pounds every day. That’s the kind of bad habit that will keep kids in pain and our office busy for a long time.
Carrying heavy backpacks doesn’t just drain students of the energy that might be better used completing schoolwork or playing sports; chronic misuse of backpacks can lead to permanent damage to their spine if not corrected early enough. Among of the risks of backpack misuse are vertebral stress fractures, back and neck strain, growth plate inflammation, scoliosis (which teenage girls are most susceptible to) and damage to the nerves in the neck and shoulders. These injuries are more common than you might think. In fact, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reported 5,415 injuries caused by backpacks seen in emergency rooms in 2013 alone.
Pack It Light, Wear It Right
In a recent survey published in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics, researchers examined the backpack use and spinal health of 465 students. They found that the prevalence of low back pain increased by 25% for every eight extra pounds of average backpack weight.
Problems usually occur when the weight of a backpack pulls a child’s upper body backward, prompting them to lean forward to maintain balance and support the weight with their back instead of their shoulders. This position puts abnormal stress on the intervertebral discs and, over time, leads to distortion of the normal curves in the thoracic and lumbar spines. Because these forward-leaning children need to crane their necks backward to look forward, it can also result in chronic neck and shoulder pain. At the very least, it’s a recipe for chronic poor posture and rounded shoulders.
Worse yet, the longer the stress of carrying a heavy backpack goes on (often decades for kids today), the longer it takes for problems in the spine to be corrected. Early exposure to spinal stress can lead to a lifetime of back and neck pain.
The Big Question: How Much Should Your Child’s Backpack Weigh?
A loaded backpack should weigh no more than 10% of your child’s total bodyweight. For a 50 lb. kindergartener, that means a maximum of 5 pounds. For a 120 lb. high schooler, that amounts to 12 pounds. Keep the child’s physique in mind as well; a tall, thin 100 lb. teenage girl carrying 10 pounds in a backpack is significantly different than a shorter, muscular 100 lb. teenage boy carrying the same weight.
What Else Can Parents Do?
Besides limiting backpack weight, here are a few additional tips to help prevent the needless back and neck pain that backpack misuse can cause for your kids.
1. Choose The Right Backpack
Consider more than fashion when choosing a backpack. A backpack shouldn’t be larger than your child’s back – the more room in the backpack, the more likely it is to be overloaded. Choose a bag with wide, padded shoulder straps that are spaced no wider than your child’s shoulders and avoid messenger-style bags that have only one strap.
2. Pack Correctly
Pack the heaviest objects towards the center at the bottom of the backpack so they’re carried closed to the body, reducing leverage on the spine.
3. Carry Only The Essentials
Encourage your child to keep only essential items in their backpack and make frequent stops at their locker to exchange books if necessary. Only those needed for the next class should be taken along. Suggest they take a few minutes at their lockers at the end of the day to figure out what they really need to take home with them.
4. Use Both Shoulder Straps
Wearing only one shoulder strap distributes weight unevenly and causes significantly more stress on the spine. Using only one strap can contribute to neck and shoulder pain and worsen scoliosis.
5. Adjust Correctly
Shoulder straps should be adjusted snugly enough so that the bag doesn’t hang more than four inches below the belt line. However, make sure they’re not so tight that the pack goes above the base of the neck.
6. Get Checked By Your Chiropractor
The harmful effects of carrying heavy backpacks is something most parents won’t think about until the damage is done. Have your child examined regularly by your chiropractor so that any potential spinal or postural problems can be addressed and corrected before they start causing pain.
Back Pain? Need A Chiropractor In Brookfield? We Can Help
If your child is experiencing back pain due to improper backpack use, we can help. At Ascent Chiropractic we use gentle, non-thrusting chiropractic adjustments in combination with counseling on proper nutrition, exercise and postural habits to eliminate the causes of back pain and help your children reach their optimum health potential. To make an appointment today, call us at 262-345-4166 or use our online scheduling app.
Cottalorda J, Bourelle S, Gauthison V. Effects of Backpack Carrying in Children. Orthopedics. 2004 Nov; 27(11): 1172-1175.
Maurer, E. A weighty issue: backpacks & back pain. J Am Chiro Assoc. 1999 Feb; 36(2): 16-17.
Heuschis Z, Gilkey D, Peel J, Kennedy C. The association of self-reported backpack use and backpack weight with low back pain among college students. J Can Chiro Assoc. 2010 Jun; 54(2): 432-437.
American Friends of Tel Aviv University. Heavy backpacks may damage nerves, muscles and skeleton, study suggests. ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 2013 Feb 21.
Negrini S, Carabalona R. Backpacks on! Schoolchildren’s perceptions of load, associations with back pain and factors determining the load. Spine. 2002 Jan 15; 27(2): 187-195.