Here's some good news for back-to-school: Backpacks are good for your kids' backs.
With so much focus on the damage that backpacks can cause, it's easy to forget that they were meant to lighten a load by distributing weight among some of the body's strongest muscles. When sensibly packed and worn with two straps over both shoulders, they do that.
Now, here's the bad news: In real life, where backpacks are overstuffed, thrown over one shoulder and allowed to drag along a kid's backside, they're trouble.
"Wearing a backpack slung down across your hips is taking away the advantage of wearing a backpack," said Dr. Barbara Morris, a pediatrician and chief medical officer with Community Care Physicians.
The key advice from health experts is to keep the weight at a reasonable level. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests keeping a backpack within 20 percent of a child's body weight. Others prefer lighter limits: Area doctors, physical therapists and occupational therapists suggest a maximum load of 15 percent of body weight; the American Occupational Therapy Association recommends a 10 percent limit.
More than half of students carry a backpack that is heavier than 10 percent of body weight, according to AOTA.
Parents should not guess whether a student's backpack has exceeded the recommended weight, said Dr. Prerana Patel, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Albany Medical Center. She suggests actually putting it on a scale.
"If you carry an amount based on how strong you are, you can carry quite a bit," she said.
If you can't fit every book a student needs into the backpack, have him carry one in his arm, she said. Karen Jacobs, a professor at Boston University who specializes in pediatric ergonomics, offers this tip: Keep the water bottle empty, and ask your child to fill it when at school.
"If you put it all on your back, it makes you walk badly, it makes you lean, it makes you use your back muscles more than you should," Patel said. "It gives you pain."
Distributing the weight is also critical, experts said. Carrying a backpack over one shoulder damages posture, Patel said. So does sloppy packing that causes a lopsided load. Over time, the result is muscles that are stretched on one side of the body and shortened on the other, said Nancy Clarke, a physical therapist at Ellis Hospital in Schenectady. That can cause everything from tiny muscle tears to the inability to stand up straight.
"A big load over time will cause (muscle) tissue failure," Clarke said.
Jacobs suggests making packing the backpack part of the daily school-preparation routine, along with tasks like choosing clothing for the next day.
If your child is experiencing persistent back pain, Morris has two bits of advice: First, get her to a doctor. And second, talk to school officials about making changes. Perhaps the school could provide an extra set of books for your child to keep at home. A modification to his schedule might allow more frequent stops at his locker, so he won't have to carry as much from class to class.
Just don't ignore your child's back pain, stressed Clarke. She sometimes treats adults with back issues that started when they were backpack-carrying teens.
"There are definitely long-lasting effects," she said.
Despite her concerns, Clarke said improper backpack use is a small problem compared to the growing numbers of young people who are overweight and don't get enough exercise. When there's pain or an injury from a backpack, she said, it's often because students "haven't developed the musculature to carry it."
Patel said backpacks are too often maligned by parents, who blame them for causing structural damage to the spine. A backpack will not cause a problem like scoliosis, she said.
Patel also does not see backpacks as the worst common enemy of students' backs. She attributes more slouching, and subsequent pain from repeated bad posture, to hunching over a cellphone.
"It's much more of a factor than the humble backpack," she said.
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