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Prevent Heavy Backpack Strain: 6 Tips for Returning Students

As everyone’s thoughts turn to back-to-school, kids are getting ready to gear up after a (longer than usual) break. While we’re not sure exactly what school will look like in the fall, one ongoing concern for students is the strain and stress from heavy backpacks.

While many schools are streamlining their books, especially at the college-level, e-readers and tablets haven’t entirely replaced traditional books yet. Textbooks are very common and very heavy. All the weight of books, plus a lunchbox, gym clothes, and sports gear may weigh students down and cause back strain and discomfort.

So, what’s a parent to do? At Orthopaedic Hospital of Wisconsin, back and joint health is of the utmost importance to us. Heavy lifting can eventually lead to disc and spinal injuries, shoulder strain, and more. Here are 6 tips to help your student carry smarter and avoid the strain of a heavy backpack.

1. Avoid the Heavy Backpack: How Heavy is Too Heavy?

Most kids can safely carry 10% of their body weight. Meaning an 80 lb child can carry about 7.5-8.0 lbs safely. This is assuming that they’re distributing the weight properly, lifting with their knees, and wearing an ergonomic bookbag with both straps fitted to their shoulders.

But do you really know how much weight your child is carrying? In one study, 96% of parents surveyed reported they had no idea how heavy their child’s pack was. You may want to put your kids’ bag on the scale to see how much homework they’re carrying around.

As you look at your middle schooler with their over-stuffed backpack, half-zipped, and slung over one shoulder, you probably realize “proper weight distribution” isn’t on their radar. Most kids don’t notice the strain and may not know they’re doing damage to their bodies until they experience back aches and pains.

2. Review Proper Heavy Lifting Guidelines

One way that parents can combat the battle of the heavy backpack is to review proper bag carrying guidelines with your kids.

– Wear your pack with both straps around your shoulders.
– Store books in a locker or desk, whenever possible.
– Clean out your bag regularly and avoid carrying unnecessary weight.
– Choose a bag that’s lightweight and properly fitted to your frame and size.
– Lift loads with your knees and legs, rather than your back and shoulders.

A gentle reminder can go a long way toward helping your youngster or teen remember to carry their backpack correctly. It might not look as “cool” as a bag carried casually over their shoulder, but it will be less painful and strenuous.

Another important note is that of the over 5000 backpack-related injuries per year, many aren’t spine and back-related. Improper backpack use (i.e., slinging it over one shoulder or dragging it behind the body) presents a significant tripping hazard. If they don’t carry their bag correctly, your child could easily trip, stumble, and sustain a head injury or break a bone!

3. Select a Backpack that’s Right for Your Child

Elementary students may only need to carry a folder or a few papers, but these days a tablet or laptop has become increasingly necessary. If your child needs to bring their computer back and forth each day, you’ll need to find a bag that holds the laptop securely, allowing kids to keep the weight of the device near their body.

Look for a backpack with evenly spaced straps, and even a stability strap that runs across the chest. Older students may also benefit from a waist strap, especially if they’re carrying a big load. Consumer Reports is an excellent guide for selecting a backpack that’s ergonomic and safe.

It’s essential to balance your child’s taste and preference with something that’s also comfortable and easy for them to wear. While they may want the latest superhero character on their bag, an ergonomic health-friendly backpack will provide more support and safety. Split the difference by helping them find some patches or decals to personalize their bag and make it unique.

4. Weigh the Merits of Using a Rolling Bag

Business professionals know the benefits of the rolling bag. A bag with wheels makes every load easier to carry and can be really helpful for hauling heavy books, electronics, and other equipment back and forth to the office.

Your kids may not feel quite as enthusiastic about the idea of a wheeled bag, however. These bags offer a lot of benefits, especially if your child is carrying a laptop these days, but they can also be awkward to use (and “embarrassing, Mom!”). It’s also important to note that many schools don’t allow wheeled backpacks due to the tripping hazard in crowded hallways. Some schools only permit wheeled bags for kids who are unable to carry the pack on their back.

Once again, this may be a situation where compromise is key. If it’s allowed by the school and you can find a rolling bag that your child will use regularly, look for one that also has shoulder straps. Bags with only a handle force the user to carry them unevenly, putting a strain on one shoulder and one side of the back.

You know your child best. If you suspect they won’t use the wheels (or that the wheels will be an added danger), then a wheeled bag creates extra weight that only increases the hazards of a heavy backpack. Even the lightest weight bags don’t do the job if kids won’t carry them properly.

5. Know the Signs of Heavy Backpack Strain

Back, shoulder, and even leg pain can all be indicative of a backpack that’s too heavy. So what should you do if your child complains of back pain and discomfort?

First of all, if the pain is severe or ongoing, your child should see an orthopedic professional to be evaluated for injury. Back injuries are uncommon in kids, but not unheard of. While they may seem flexible and nimble, kids are still susceptible to injuries.

Signs of back injuries in children include:

– Pain and discomfort in the back, neck, or shoulders
– Aches in the legs and lower back, especially pain radiating down the legs
– Numbness or tingling in the hands or forearms
– Fidgeting and sitting unevenly, or trouble walking
– Fever, sleeplessness (due to pain), or weight loss
– Bowel or bladder problems

These concerns are especially urgent and should be evaluated by a professional to rule out other health issues and to plan for recovery.

6. Help Your Child Plan for Better Backpack Health

If you’re hoping to ease the strain of a heavy backpack, consider choosing paperbacks or eBooks whenever you have the option. Help your student narrow down the accessories and streamline the load as much as possible. This may mean requesting a second locker for your student-athlete or helping them whittle down their book selections to the necessities for that day.

Whenever possible, pack a separate bag for after school activities and bring it along on the carpool. If your kid is responsible for getting back and forth to post-school events, then see if they can store their spare bag in a classroom, locker, or office until it’s time to go.

School administration is also concerned about your child’s health and wellbeing. Most staff will be sympathetic to the issue and work with you to find a solution. While learning is crucial to your child’s welfare, so is health. Don’t sacrifice their health under a heavy backpack. Work to find safe solutions before they show signs and symptoms of a back injury.

If you or your child is experiencing symptoms of back strain or injury, don’t wait. Give us a call to work with a clinician who can assist your child and get to the root of the problem. Pain shouldn’t be ignored, especially in developing spines, knees, and shoulders. At Orthopaedic Hospital of Wisconsin, we’re here to help you and your child enjoy life-long orthopedic health!

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