Heavy backpacks are a real pain in the neck
You've just bought the coolest backpack for your child, but have you thought about how dangerous it could be? Once it's full, if it weighs more than 10 to 15 percent of your child's weight, it can become a real pain in the neck or back.
Here's why: Anything that is heavy and constantly carried on someone's shoulders will pull the body out of its normal alignment. When the vertebrae are out of alignment, they can cause pressure on nerves and discs. In less severe cases, too-heavy backpacks can cause slumped shoulders, poor posture and muscle strain on young bodies.
Gary Roeben, a Naperville chiropractor, believes this is the beginning of an epidemic. In 2000, 7,277 children in the United States sought emergency care for backpack-related injuries. "I believe by the time children are in their teen years, close to 75 percent of them will experience spine-related injuries caused by improper use and over-weighted backpacks," Roeben says.
What should parents do? • Weigh that backpack. • Take out any unnecessary items. • Talk to school administrators about alternatives, such as sending home handouts rather than textbooks.
In Naperville, a handful of parents buy additional textbooks to keep at home, according to Jodi Wirt, assistant superintendent in Naperville's District 203.
Remind your child of proper body mechanics. According to occupational therapist Terry Roat of Naperville, "a backpack should be centered evenly for equal weight distribution. When lifting, if shortness of breath, difficulty maintaining correct posture, or increased forward head is noted, the weight is too much."
Children should have proper posture and walk with their shoulders back and stomach muscles tight—tough to do if the backpack is too heavy. Strengthening exercises may come in handy to prevent future injuries.
Teachers, meanwhile, should give children ample time to finish work. In addition, they could lead classroom discussions of the basics of backpack safety and how to avoid injuries.
Some parents are trying to solve this weighty problem by buying backpacks on wheels. But some schools discourage them because they are too big for lockers and take up too much classroom space. In the event of a fire, school officials worry, the wheeled packs could cause a major safety problem. Kari L. Osier
Editor's note: We tried the AirPacks backpack, courtesy of Relax The Back, 1925 N. Clybourn, Chicago, and loved it. The lumbar support system made it easy to carry heavy loads. Two cautions: It only works for taller kids and prices start at around $50.