Back-to-school time can be a pain in the back
Meredith R. Verhoff, OTR/L
MedCentral Pediatric Therapy
It's back to school time - a time for new shoes, clothes and supplies. One necessary item is a backpack to transport those books, notebooks, paper, pencils, lunch, etc. to and from school. When I was in school, the only attribute of my backpack I cared about was the style. Now as an occupational therapist working with children, I realize there is a lot more to consider. The American Occupational Therapy Association has made Sept. 17 National School Backpack Awareness Day to increase awareness and education about backpack related injuries facing children.
According to the American Occupational Therapy Association, 60 percent of American students ages 9 to 20 experience chronic back pain related to wearing a heavy backpack. More than 7,000 emergency room visits in 2001 were for problems related to backpacks, with half of those injuries in children 5-14 years old. The problems associated with wearing a heavy backpack are many: aching back and shoulders, weakened muscles, tingling arms, poor breathing, fatigue, stooped posture and other negative effects on the developing spine. Awareness of the potential long-term problems backpacks pose to children has resulted in increased medical research, media coverage and proposed legislation in two states.
There are many strategies parents, students and teachers can implement to help prevent backpack related injuries. Parents and teachers can help their students properly choose, load and wear their backpacks. When selecting a backpack, make sure it is the right size for your child's back and large enough to carry necessary school items. A backpack that is too large, however, has the potential to be overloaded, which is the biggest contributor to injuries. Backpacks should never contain more than 15 percent of a student's body weight. This means that a student weighing 100 pounds should not wear a backpack weighing more than 15 pounds. The average student's backpack weighs almost one quarter of his body weight. Three out of ten students at least once a week carry backpacks loaded with up to one third of their body weight. To prevent strain, the heaviest items should be loaded closest to the student's back. Make sure the student is carrying only necessary items. If the backpack is too heavy on a given day, have the student hand carry a book or other item instead of putting it in the backpack. If the backpack is consistently heavy, consider using a book bag on wheels, if the school allows it.
After the backpack is properly loaded, be sure the student is wearing it correctly. Both shoulder straps should always be worn, as wearing a backpack slung over one shoulder causes a student to lean to the side, curving the spine and causing pain and strain. Ensure the shoulder straps are well padded. Our shoulders and necks have many blood vessels and nerves that can cause pain and tingling in the neck, arms and hands when too much pressure is applied to them. The straps should be adjusted so the backpack fits snuggly against the student's back. A backpack that hangs loosely can pull the student backward and strain muscles used to keep the body upright. If the backpack has a waist belt, have the student wear it, as this distributes the backpack's weight more evenly. To reduce the strain on the spine, the bottom of the backpack should rest in the curve of the lower back. It should never rest more than four inches below the child's waist.
In a study on the effect of backpack education on student health, nearly eight out of 10 middle-school students who properly loaded and wore their backpacks reported less pain and strain in their backs, necks and shoulders. So the next time you are talking to your student about her school day or helping with homework, take some time to educate her on how to correctly load and wear her backpack. Being free from pain and fatigue will help students get the most out of their school day.
For more information, or to learn how your school can get involved, visit www.aota.org. For information on other occupational therapy services, talk to your school's occupational therapist or call MedCentral Pediatric Therapy at (419) 520-2386.