School shopping is quickly approaching. With the sales tax holiday being extended and all of the exciting and fashionable options out there, it can be hard to know which is the right backpack for your child and which will cause damage to their backs. Dr. David Siambanes, D.O., a pediatric orthopedic surgeon and the medical director of the St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital Scoliosis Center took some time to answer some of our biggest questions before we head out to do our school shopping: What backpack is right for my child, and how can we prevent back pain in our kids this school year?
What is the first major thing a parent should consider when buying a backpack?
Wearing the backpack over the shoulders, both shoulders, and wearing it close to the body is the best. You want to maintain the weight of the backpack over the center of the child’s body weight. The farther it goes in front or in back of the child, the farther the weight pulls from the body.
The problem is, it is still on their back. The major thing I would tell parents is to check the backpack and weigh the backpack. Unfortunately you might have to tell your child that before they leave that you’re going to look in the backpack if its too heavy. Then, go in the backpack and remove the excess stuff that is not educational. In my study, I found that 30% of what they are carrying is not even educational. So just the concept of being aware of the weight of the backpack before they run off to school, and giving them the idea that they need to watch the weight of the backpack is important. Because really the weight is the issue. You can put it on your back any way you can but it doesn’t relieve any of the pain or lower your susceptibility because it is still on your back.
What type of injuries can happen to kids who have improper backpacks and what causes them?
Most complain of neck, upper back, and lower back pain. The problem is that some of these kids have pain for prolonged periods of time, chronic pain that lasts over six months, and they feel relief when they take the backpack off. So the issue is two fold. Number one: they’re having bad pain right now. But number two: are we causing back pain in their future? Are we causing detrimental effects at this point that show up when they are in the working class age. I found one study in Finland that found that there was a correlation, that if you have back pain as an adult that was impairing your life, that it was related to back pain as a child. So obviously we don’t want to have any source of back pain, especially if its going to drag on into adulthood.
Do you have any guidelines when it comes to purchasing a backpack?
There used to be rolling backpacks and I think a lot of schools found them to be a nuisance or a hazard. But they took the weight off of your shoulders which is ideal. The backpacks should have both shoulders should be secured snugly to the child so that its not hanging down the back or held in one hand. Throwing the weight asymmetrically will cause more issues.
The issue with the backpack isn’t as strong as the issue with the weight. That’s what we found. We actually did the largest study in the US on this regarding backpacks and back pain with school children. So we tried to find a weight that was acceptable; for example, if they carry just 20% or 10% or 15% of their weight, which would not cause pain and allow for the things they need? But there was really no okay weight. There was a simple concept that if you had less weight you were less likely to have complaint of back pain, and as the weight went up so did the probability of back pain. But there wasn’t a safe weight. So the lighter the better is the concept.
If they can get a locker, get one. If you can get drive them or carpool to school than do that rather than have them carry and walk it back and forth. That’s all time with that backpack on their shoulders. So those are all recommendations we try to push forward. If there is an availability to have two sets of books, that is another great option. But unfortunately, most of these back packs are not filled with heavy notebooks. They tried to change the concept of weight by changing textbooks to notebooks but the notebooks just got heavier and heavier.
It seems like kids today have more back issues than we used to hear about. What do you think might be causing kids to carry heavy backpacks more than in the past?
I think it has definitely gotten more and more noticeable. When I went to school we all had lockers, and we were able to get to our classes and our lockers every class. That doesn’t happen anymore. When I did the study in California there were no lockers. There was nobody in California that could still use them, and the concept behind that was to reduce vandalism and safety issues. In Florida they do have lockers but if you ask the kids they tell you that they can only get to the lockers once a day because their classes are so spread out. So at this point, the use of a locker is very infrequent– so that is more time on their back. The other concept is that textbooks are getting bigger and heavier. More kids are walking to school. But I think for a long time the idea was that if you’re 12 or under your pain isn’t really an issue, its not a significant factor– I think people always thought that kids at that age cant have significant pain. But we have found that not to be true. And the girls seem to have a higher likelihood and a higher prevalence of pain than the boys in the school age kids and I think that is because they have their growth spurts earlier. I think that can induce some adolescent type pain.
Is there anything else you would like to share about back pack safety?
Most kids will take their bag, fill every book for the week and carry it all week. Kids don’t really have that forethought. So it takes the parents– we should always first start with the parents. You may want to blame the schools but the parental portion of it, if we can at least discuss with our kids, go through their schedule, find out what books they actually need for each day, be selective, monitor their backpacks– all of those things help. No kid wants their mother in their backpack but if you tell them that it needs to be a certain weight or we will look through it, then they’ll do it on their own. Assessing your child’s schedule and the weight of the backpack is important. It really all starts there.