Now that the school year is underway, students are getting settled into their daily routines. Many students in facilities ranging from elementary school to college use a backpack to transport belongings to and from the classroom.
While this method is usually the most convenient, backpacks can be harmful to students if they are overloaded or worn incorrectly. Wearing a backpack incorrectly or carrying a load that is too heavy can lead to several complications, including neck or back pain, instability with walking, poor posture and decreased lung function. These complications can be easily avoided by recognizing when a problem exists and following recommendations to correct the problem.
Watch for the following warning signs that indicate the backpack is too heavy or is not being worn correctly:
• Change in posture when wearing the backpack
• Pain when wearing the backpack
• Struggling to put on or take off the backpack
• Red marks on the shoulders after removing the backpack
• Tingling or numbness in the arms when wearing the backpack
If any of the above signs occur, try the following tips to decrease the risk of injury:
• Wear both straps at all times to evenly distribute weight and promote symmetrical posture; shoulder straps should be adjusted to permit free movement of both arms.
• Put on and take off backpack carefully to avoid instability and twisting of the trunk.
• Wear the backpack over the middle of the back to use the strongest back muscles most effectively; backpack should rest evenly in the middle of the back near the student’s center of gravity.
• Decrease the load to reduce strain; the weight of a loaded backpack should be 10-15 percent or less of the student’s bodyweight; place heaviest objects closest to the student’s back.
To avoid injury and increase comfort, choose a backpack that has:
• A padded back to improve comfort and reduce pressure on the shoulders, back and under the arms.
• Wide, padded shoulder straps to reduce the risk of impaired circulation, which can cause numbness and tingling in the arms.
• Hip and chest belts to transfer some of the weight from the back and shoulders to the torso and hips.
• Multiple compartments to distribute weight more evenly and improve access to backpack contents.
If the student still has difficulty with using a backpack after considering these recommendations, consider a backpack with wheels. However, there are precautions to take with this type of backpack, as well. Make sure the handle is long enough that the student does not have to twist or bend to pull the backpack, and ensure that the wheels are large enough to prevent shaking or toppling of the backpack. Students that change classes frequently or walk long distances to or from school tend to prefer the traditional backpack to the wheeled variety.
Another simple suggestion to reduce risk of injury is to encourage children to be active and exercise. Active children tend to have better strength and flexibility, which make it easier for them to carry a backpack.
Amy Bashford is a physical therapist with Blount Memorial Total Rehabilitation.