While that new backpack your son or daughter just got for the new school year might seem harmless, there is the potential for a lifetime of back and neck ailments if not loaded or worn correctly, according to Dr. Paula Kramer, chair of the Department of Occupational Therapy at University of the Sciences in Philadelphia.
"While children's bodies are resilient, even they can't take the day after day stress caused by a backpack that is too heavy or worn improperly," Kramer said. "Even if the backpacks are made lighter, if the weight is not distributed correctly, there can be the prospect of long-term problems."
According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, more than 7,000 emergency room visits in 2001 were related to backpacks and book bags with approximately half of those injuries occurring in children 5 to 14 years old.
"Parents should remember when they help their children to pack their backpacks, the heaviest items should be placed closest to the child's body and as close to their center of gravity as possible," Kramer explained. "Otherwise, not only will the heavy backpacks cause strain on backs and necks, but it will also make the child unsafe because it throws off their center of gravity."
The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) concurs with a 2002 study in Spine that loaded backpacks weigh no more than 15 percent of a student's body weight. For example, a student weighing 100 pounds should carry no more that 15 pounds.
While it might not be the fashionable thing to do, backpacks should be worn with both shoulder straps, preferably ones that are well-padded, and adjusted so that the straps fit snugly. If the backpack comes with a waist belt, that too should worn to help distribute the weight. Ideally, it's best to use backpacks with wheels when a heavy load is unavoidable.
"When you have heavy backpacks, it's actually better to use ones with wheels," Dr. Kramer said. "However, some schools ban them and children don't consider them cool. It's a real conscious trade off for schools. If you don't allow backpacks with wheels, then you have to find some way to lighten up the backpacks. You have to require less text books to be taken home at night."
AOTA is sponsoring a National School Backpack Awareness Day on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2006. The day will educate children, parents, school administrators, teachers, and communities about the serious health effects on children from backpacks that are too heavy or worn improperly.