Back to school: National School Backpack Awareness Day

Backpack Day-2Do you know how much your child’s backpack weighs? If it’s more than 15 percent of their body weight, then it’s likely your child might become of the 23,000 students a year treated for backpack-related injuries. More than 79 million students in the United States carry school backpacks and over half of them carry backpacks that are too heavy. Backpack weight isn’t the only important thing; it’s just as important how the backpack is worn. Backpacks should be worn on both shoulders for equal weight distribution, and the height should fall two inches below the shoulder blades and sit at waist level.

Children’s Hospital Boston will have backpack weigh-ins and games today in the Patient Entertainment Center from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m, but for those who can’t make it, here’s what you need to know about backpacks and your child’s health.

Dr. Pierre d'Hemencourt
Dr. Pierre d'Hemencourt

Pierre d’Hemencourt, MD, a Children’s Hospital Boston Sports Medicine specialist, answers a few questions about children and backpack safety.

Can heavy backpacks cause back problems for my child?

This issue is a bit controversial, as there is no specific proof as to whether backpacks are a direct cause of back problems. During adolescence kids are going through growth spurts and so their bones and posture are susceptible to injury from playing sports, as well as from heavy backpacks. However, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and the American Physical Therapy Association have set out guidelines that should be used with backpacks to reduce the risks associated with them.

What problems could potentially be caused by heavy backpacks?

One problem seen in 4 to 6 percent of school children complaining of back pain is spondylolysis, which is a stress fracture in the back that can be treated with anti-inflammatory medications. Children also experience apophysitis, which is an inflammation of growth cartilage, often in the heel, that is generally treated with rest and a brace, along with stretching exercises.

Kids also might experience different posture problems. With a heavy backpack, many children end up leaning too far forward, rolling their shoulders and giving themselves a more rounded upper-back posture. They then tilt their head up so as to be able to see properly. This posture strains the back and neck muscles, and can possibly cause nerve damage in the neck. The child might also lean backward from the weight, which can alter the sway of the back and cause stress fractures in the spine. If they wear their bag only on one shoulder, they might walk tilted to one side and experience neck pain. In addition, if the straps on the bag are too small they can dig into the neck and shoulder muscles and potentially cause nerve damage in that area.

How will I know if my child is experiencing back problems?

The biggest warning sign is if she is complaining of back pain. Another is if her posture changes once she has her backpack on. For instance, if she leans forward, backward or to the side, that means something is wrong. In addition, excessive redness on pressure points such as her shoulders means the bag is too heavy.

What should my child do to avoid back pain?

The first thing he should do is have the right kind of backpack. It should have padded shoulder straps, which distribute the weight in the bag evenly over his shoulders, as opposed to having small straps digging into his shoulders. Also, a bag with a waist belt helps distribute the weight through his hips, as well. The straps should be adjusted so that the bag rests at the middle of the back. If they are too tight, it will be difficult to get the bag off, and if they are too loose, it will result in your child leaning back too far. A bag with a padded back can also be beneficial in removing some of the pressure. Bags with rollers are another possibility, though if your child’s school has a lot of stairs it won’t help him out much.

Can these back problems be corrected?

If caught early enough and habits are changed, back pain can be reduced or eliminated. If your child has had a previous back injury and lightens his backpack load, pain from his previous injury can be reduced, as well. If you suspect your child is having back problems, take him to your doctor to see what therapies or changes are needed to ease him of any pain. Carrying heavy loads can cause bigger problems down the road if not corrected early on.