The number of books and notebooks seems to multiply each fall students return to school. While parents may fear the mountain of homework each night, they should also be concerned about the damage that an improperly worn backpack is doing to their child's back.
Supriya Sen OTD, MS, OTR/L, Assistant Professor of Occupational Therapy at University of the Sciences, said it is important for parents to understand and appreciate the importance of what constitutes a good backpack for their child to prevent musculoskeletal injuries. Poor fitting backpacks can lead to injuries such as strains, fractures, and even spinal curvature.
"An ill-fitting pack can be a pain in the back for everyone involved," said Dr. Sen. "It is important to make sure you find one that is the right size with the right cushioning for your son or daughter."
Thousands of backpack-related injuries are treated at hospital emergency rooms, doctor's offices and clinics each year, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reports. In the long-term, improperly wearing a backpack can cause pain in the hip, knee, and back and create poor postural habit which are difficult to break as children grow, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.
Here are some tips from Dr. Sen and the American Occupational Therapy Association on what to look for when buying a backpack:
1. Size matters. If the backpack is too big it can pull the child backwards straining muscles. A pack too small won't offer enough space and will cause more pressure on the shoulders. The bottom of the pack should rest in the curve of the lower back not more than four inches below the child's waist.
2. Proper Padding. Select a backpack with well-padded shoulder straps. Your shoulder and neck have many blood vessels and nerves. Too much pressure in the area can cause pain and tingling in the neck, arms and hands.
3. Two shoulders are better than one. A traditional backpack with two straps is best. Wearing a pack slung over one shoulder can cause the child to lean to one side. Leaning and curving the spine can cause pain and discomfort.
4. Buckle up. Using a bag with a waist belt can help distribute the weight of the backpack evenly to prevent against and strains or pains. Once you have the perfect bag, it is just as important to make sure your child is loading it correctly.
The bag should weigh no more than 10 percent of the child's body weight. If the bag is too heavy, check to make sure what your child is bringing home from school is necessary for the day's homework. If the backpack is too heavy on a regular basis, consider a book bag on wheels or encourage your child to hand carry a book or another item in front of them. When packing the bag make sure your child is putting the heaviest items closest to the child's back. It is also important to arrange the materials so they don't slide around inside the bag.
Dr. Supriya Sen is an assistant professor of occupational therapy at University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. She has more than two decades of clinical experience working as an occupational therapist and as an ergonomics consultant in industry and healthcare.