At Advanced Orthopedics and Hand Surgery Institute in New Jersey, we focus on issues that affect the shoulders, arms, wrists, and hands. However, because a fair amount of our patients are children and teens, we find it beneficial to stay up to date on the issues that affect this age group. During this time of year, one of the major stressors can be the backpack a youngster uses to tote school books and other important items. Whether you have a school-aged child who wears a backpack or you are an adult backpacker, this information may serve you well.
The American Occupational Therapy Association has reported that nearly 80 million young Americans, including children, carry a backpack almost every day. Of this number, they estimate that about 55 percent are carrying too much weight in their bag. A filled backpack should equate to no more than 10 percent of the child’s weight. A backpack that is too heavy doesn’t just put strain on the back itself, but also on the neck and shoulders. No big deal, you say?
In a study performed at the University of California, Riverside, researchers polled approximately 3,500 middle school students aged 11 to 15 about backpack usage and pain. Sixty-four percent of the children polled said that they had some degree of pain due to their backpack. Twenty-one percent said that their pain had been present for at least six months. Of the group, girls were more vocal about their pain.
Some of the symptoms that may result from a backpack that is too heavy include:
- Aching pain in the shoulders or back.
- Stooped posture.
- Muscle weakness in the back or upper body.
- Tingling in the arms or legs.
Can Backpack Pain Be Prevented?
In most cases, it’s possible to significantly decrease the risk of pain resulting from backpack use. Studies indicate that the primary problem is that backpacks are overfilled. Reducing the number of items that are carried is one step that can be taken, but must involve both parent and child. The fact of the matter is that books are heavy. To offset the weight, parents can help their child choose a lightweight backpack that has:
- Wide, adjustable shoulder straps with padding
- Padding and structure on the back
- Numerous compartments
- A strap at the chest and the waist
- Width that is the same or narrower than the chest
It isn’t enough that a proper backpack is selected; the student must also commit to using it well. This means wearing straps over both shoulders, not slinging a heavy pack onto one side only. The backpack should be adjusted to ensure it does not sag. Also, as much as possible, only what is absolutely necessary should be loaded into the backpack.