NEWS

Backpacks can be a real pain in the neck and back

Joan Hadac

Making his way down the street, a hunched figure rubs his back in search of relief. His discomfort, obvious in his posture, slows his pace and eventually forces a break.

Stopped, he shrugs off his backpack and rests.

A boy on his way to school, the trek from his home isn’t the source of his pain. Instead, it’s the backpack that doubles as his book bag straining his back and neck.

But what he and his parents don’t realize is that in most cases it’s not the backpack but the weight of the books inside that brings children down.

Cases like his tend to start in junior high and high school, according to Dr. Erin Massey, a chiropractor with Massey Family Chiropractic and Wellness Center in St. Charles.

But it doesn’t always stop with a little discomfort. He said children who carry overweight backpacks or unevenly distribute the weight of a bag’s content can face postural problems.

Such problems include lateral spinal bending, an elevation of the shoulder height and significant forward leaning of the head and trunk of the body, according to Dr. Anthony Surrusco of Clarendon Chiropractic Center in Clarendon Hills, who cites a 2004 Auburn University study of 421 backpack-carrying students.

But parents can protect their child’s posture just by equipping them with an appropriate backpack and explaining safe uses.

Perfect packs

Style sometimes has to bow to health, especially when it comes to selecting the right backpack.

Hands down, Massey and Surrusco agreed the backpack that sports two thick, wide straps is the best model. The straps should be snug so the child carries the backpack in the middle of his back, both said.

“You don’t want a satchel or a strap across the body. It doesn’t distribute the weight appropriately,” Massey said.

Dr. Eric Schouten of Schouten Chiropractic Clinic in Elmhurst said children also benefit from backpacks equipped with a waist belt.

“It keeps the backpack close to the body and keeps the pack close to the center of gravity,” he said, adding that a backpack with a lumbar support cushion and ergonomic stays give backpacks support and shape.

Surrusco warned against letting the backpack hang below the backside or rest up on the neck, explaining such a position could invite injury to the back.

“Any decent backpack manufacturer has adjustable shoulder straps so you raise or lower the backpack to the correct height,” Schouten said.

“Bigger is not better,” he added, advising to choose a backpack that is proportionate to the person carrying it.

Lighten up

Before outfitting a child with a new backpack, Massey said it’s important to know the child’s weight. The weight of a book-baring backpack should be between 10 and 15 percent of the child’s weight, he said, otherwise it’s overloaded.

Schouten agrees that children usually carry way too much weight in their backpacks, estimating the average haul around 25 percent of the student’s body weight.

Instead, he said children who weigh 50 pounds, should carry no more than 7.5 pounds; 80 pounds, no more than 12 pounds; 100 pounds, no more than 15 pounds; and 130 pounds, no more than 19.5 pounds.

Giving a child the chance to feel the safe amount of weight in their backpack can give them reference point for the future.

Schouten said the best way for a child to gain that reference point is to put him on a scale without a backpack to find his weight. Then place a backpack on the child and fill it with items. Stop when those items weigh 5 to 15 percent of his weight. From the exercise, Schouten said the child will be able to recognize the maximum weight of his backpack.

Rolling along

Backpacks on wheels can be an alternative that removes bulky bags from the backs of students.

But Massey said the units can be clumsy if they are being carried up stairs, and they are not good in the winter because of the snow.

Also, they don’t completely rule out stress on the back.

Surrusco said wheeled backpacks “are a little better than one strap (backpacks), but shoulder problems and neck pain can still result from using them. According to the research, the problems are caused by dragging the backpack from behind.”