OSSINING, N.Y. With two third grade grandchildren by her side at CVS, Carol Perkins said she worries sometimes about the kids' backpacks being too heavy for them to carry.
"I keep suggesting the one with wheels, but I don't get too far," said Perkins.
Eight-year-old Katie Moses said her and her twin brother Matthew's backpacks aren't too heavy, but her older sister Hayley's backpack is.
"It feels like rocks," she said.
According to a U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission study, more than 75 percent of students between the ages of 8 and 12 suffer from increasing back pain caused by hauling oversized, overloaded backpacks.
Yasmin Dhar, M.D., chief of sports medicine at Sound Shore Medical Center, specializes in the prevention and treatment of sports-related injuries. She says, "Back pain is the reason for a large number of adolescent physician visits. Ill-fitting or overweight backpacks account for some back pain symptoms, as does poor posture that is exacerbated by heavy or ill-fitting backpacks."
Among the symptoms of "backpack back" include shoulder soreness from wearing a pack on only one shoulder or from wearing one whose straps are too thin. Shoulder joint problems can present themselves when straps bind across a joint with direct force. Additionally, wearing a big pack that sits too low on the body can cause bruising to the lower buttocks and upper thighs.
"Fit is important because you want to optimize a child's ability to carry necessary items for school without compromising his or her health or causing injury," says Dr. Dhar. There are key steps to take in order to ensure proper fit, she says. "A backpack should always be worn using both shoulder straps so that the force is equally distributed across both shoulders. Straps should be tightened so the backpack hangs slightly below the shoulders with no more than four inches sitting below the waist or bellybutton." A waist strap can be used, says Dr. Dhar, to help transfer some of the load to the hips. As for the size, Dr. Dhar recommends the backpack should not be larger than the child's back.
When it comes to packing, Dr. Dhar warns that overloading is a chief offender in backpack related injuries. A good guideline, she says, is that a pack should weigh no more than approximately 15 percent of the child's body weight. "An 80-pound child should not wear a backpack that weighs more than 12 pounds." However, children who weigh the same are often built differently, "so the weight should be limited to what the child is able to lift pain-free and comfortably."
Another way to avoid wearing an overloaded backpack, says Dr. Dhar, is to keep a copy of heavier textbooks at home and delegate separate packs for different activities, such as a separate pack for after-school sports.
But convincing a child to choose an appropriate pack (as opposed to one that is a popular style) and then to wear it correctly can be challenging. For starters, Dr. Dhar says, "It's important to have the child with you when picking out their backpack to make sure it fits appropriately, as well as to allow them to find one they like so they are more likely to use it."
When you're home, she suggests another tactic to make sure a child understands the importance of proper fit.
"Fill the backpack with their school supplies/books and have them wear it around the house in both the improper and proper ways." This, she says, will demonstrate in no uncertain terms how much less pain and stress they'll likely feel in their back when they were the gear correctly.
Sixteen-plus years of school is a long-term relationship to have with such a critical educational accessory. Make sure your child chooses and wears each backpack wisely.
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