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Facts Behind Backpack Safety

Remember when single-strap backpacks were the fad a few years ago? Pediatricians certainly do.

That’s when they were getting more cases of kids with strained neck, shoulder and back muscles from uneven hauling around of schools books and supplies.

But that was before some studies revealed that such an uneven distribution of weight over a period of time can cause upper back soreness or strains.

Fast forward to the first week of school in 2013 and thick, double-strapped backpacks are back in vogue. And complaints related to school-book schlepping are sliding.

“About five years ago, backpack safety was the hot topic,” said Roger Saldana, M.D., who specializes in pediatric orthopedics. “Now parents are a bit more educated and much fewer kids are using the single straps.”

No child should be carrying more than 20 percent of their body weight, Saldana said. And that ratio should go down if the child complains of discomfort.

Children should secure the backpacks properly over both shoulders. Habitually carrying backpacks over one shoulder will make muscles strain, stressing the middle back, ribs and lower back — more on one side than the other.

A backpack that’s too heavy can pull on the neck muscles, contributing to headaches, shoulder and neck pain, and lower back pain.

If your child’s school allows them, pulling a backpack on wheels is the best option for kids with too much to carry.

“Parents should take their children seriously when they complain about back pain,” Saldana said. But he adds that it’s usually no cause for alarm.

Complaints related to school backpacks represent less than a quarter of neck, shoulder or back pain reported by school kids.

The vast majority of back-related aches and pains are the result of injury or over-strenuous sports or recreational activities.

Dr. Saldana said that about 50 percent of children have had at least one episode of back pain by adolescence. This is similar to the rate of back pain in adults.

Here’s a recap of backpack safety recommendations from Dr. Saldana and the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons [1]:

  • Always use both shoulder straps to keep the weight of the backpack better distributed across the child’s back;
  • Tighten the straps to keep the load closer to the back;
  • Pack light: Kids should carry no more than 20 percent of their body weight;
  • Organize the items: Pack heavier things low and towards the center;
  • Remove items if the backpack is too heavy. Carry only those items that are required for the day, and if possible, leave unnecessary books at home or school;
  • Lift properly by bending at the knees when picking up a backpack