Heavy student backpacks can lead to future problems

“Head up and shoulders back,” my mom used to say, and it turns out that was great advice. Poor posture is ever present in today’s technologically savvy society. We may be bent over the computer, or texting and browsing the Internet on our phones, with our heads down. Today, more injuries are evident due to our use of technology, causing back pain, neck pain, shoulder pain, and even “text thumb.”

According to the US Health and Human Services, back pain in adults leads to 19 million doctor visits per year. Research shows that in adults, one episode of low back or neck pain significantly increases your chances of having it again in your life. Now, there’s recent evidence to suggest a correlation between spinal pain in childhood/adolescence and a significant risk for spinal pain later in life. Indeed, backpack injuries increased six percent between 2010 and 2011.

Extensive research exists for adults and the effect ergonomics can have on their body, but only within the last 10 years has research begun to focus on the effect it could have on children. Our parents were right when they encouraged us to sit up straight. Ergonomics is the science of refining the design of products to optimize them for human use. The more fit we are, the more efficiently we carry, or lift, something.

Effects of backpack misuse

Research on backpack ergonomics for children suggests that backpack misuse can alter spinal mobility by restricting natural movements, which is a risk factor for pain. If a backpack exceeds 15 percent of the child’s body weight, it can have numerous effects.

The increased load causes the body and head to lean forward. This unbalanced gait alters normal walking patterns and changes our center of gravity. The body naturally tries to adapt and balance itself by making postural changes such as an increased curve in the upper back (kyphosis) and a decreased or flattened curve in the lower back.

The change in center of gravity will impair balance, causing an increase in falls and a decrease in recovery time from the unexpected fall. Add walking greater distances to the equation, and the body will overcompensate even more. These shifts in spinal alignment may result in unbalanced muscle performance and a strain on spinal joints. Over all, the body’s compensation leads to negative changes in normal spinal curvatures and creates muscle fatigue.

Tips for wearing a backpack properly

The backpack should be less than 15 percent of the child’s body weight.

The backpack should not hang more than four inches below the waistline. It should rest evenly mid-back and permit free movement of the arms.

A good backpack is not wider than the child’s shoulders and is not taller than the shoulder when sitting.

The backpack should have thick straps, a padded back, and a waist and/or chest strap.

Heavy items should be close to the back. Also arrange items so they don’t slip around, and keep sharp objects secure.

The best backpacks have double straps and should not be worn on just one shoulder.

Action steps

Check your child’s posture while wearing the backpack. Look for a forward position of the head and upper body.

If the pack is too heavy, talk with the child’s teacher and ask if some items can be left at school.

Talk to your child about proper use and the importance of basic ergonomics.

For older kids, research backpacks that match ergonomic specifications and involve them in choosing the best one. Always check measurements when buying online.

Dr. Kimberly Burke is a chiropractic physician and may be reached at islandspinecenter@gmail.com