Mind your back(pack) during back-to-school

  • Written by PhysioCare Physical Therapy

From homework and tests to extra-curricular activities, students already shoulder plenty of weight during back-to-school time. Their backpacks should be the least of their worries, says physical therapist Andy Lodato, MPT, of PhysioCare Physical Therapy in Woodinville and Duvall.

Unfortunately, backpacks are often misused by both kids and teens.

“They’re misused because kids don’t use lockers anymore,” Lodato said. “They’re carrying tons of books for maybe several classes all day long. Also, typically with teenagers, the proper way to wear a backpack is not the cool way to wear a backpack. So either because they’re too heavy, overused or just worn incorrectly, backpacks can cause strained muscles, sore joints, back pain and even injury in kids.”

The American Occupational Therapy Association estimates that about 79 million students across the U.S. carry school backpacks. Among these, nearly 22,000 strains, sprains, dislocations and fractures – ailments caused by improper backpack use  – were reported by medical providers in 2013, according to the U.S. Consumer Safety Commission.

“These injuries are preventable,” Lodato said. “Both parents and teachers can play a role in identify how to correctly wear a backpack, making sure kids are following these rules.”

Select the Right Pack: Choose a pack that’s no larger than 75 percent of the length of your child’s back. “Also, wider straps are important because they distribute the weight better,” Lodato said. “A more narrow strap can sometimes cause issues with some of the nerves that run from the neck into the shoulders.”

Lighten the Load: A loaded backpack should never be heavier than 10 percent of a child’s weight.

Distribute the Weight: Use multiple pockets and compartments to distribute the weight of the items inside the pack. Keep heavier items closer to your child’s back, while light and/or sharp items (pens, scissors, etc.) should be stored away from the back.

Lift with the Knees: Teaching your child about proper lifting will offer a lifetime of protection for his/her back. Children should always lift their backpack using their knees, not their waists.

Adjust and Carry: “You should always use both shoulder straps,” Lodato said. “If the pack has a strap that goes across the middle or the waist, those should be worn, as well. Also, the backpack should fit against the back – not loose – so the weight is as close to the back as possible.”

Watch for Warning Signs: Signs your child’s backpack is too heavy or not fitted properly include difficulty picking up and/or putting on the pack, pain when wearing, tingling or numbness in the arms or legs, strap marks left behind on the shoulders, or a change in posture while wearing the backpack.

Seek Advice from a Physical Therapist: Licensed physical therapists (PTs) are specially trained to prevent injury, reduce pain and restore mobility. Seek the advice of a physical therapist, such as those on the PhysioCare Physical Therapy team, to learn more about properly selecting and wearing a backpack.

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