Back to school season is quickly approaching. As the last days of summer are upon us, many parents are beginning the quest for school supplies and the best backpack to last your child all year long. 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 are some of the types of injuries that a child can get from an improper backpack?
The load of the backpack and how it is worn can cause significant neck and back pain that can be long term, or chronic in nature. Some of the discomfort we think that occurs can be more long lasting than we think.
What should a parent look for when buying a backpack to make sure it is safe?
Whether you want a rolling backpack or a shoulder backpack, there can be issues. The rolling backpack has had issues in the past in regards to other people falling over or tripping over it depending on where it is put. The benefit, however, is that getting the weight off of the child’s shoulder is the best solution for backpack and injuries to the back and neck than anything that you would carry. If you are going to use a backpack that you would carry, the backpack should be as close to the body as it can be because it is trying to simulate normal weight distribution on the body. So the farther it is from the center of gravity from the child or the farther from the child’s feet in front or behind or to the side makes it more of a stress. So the backpack should be snug to the child’s back. It should not hang too low below the waist, and both straps will give more symmetrical weight distribution than just wearing the one strap.
Some of the backpacks have gimmicks out there like that it inflates in areas or pads certain areas, but the most important thing is keeping it snug to the child and parents need to really focus on the reduction of weight.
Do you have any suggestions on ways parents should lighten a backpack load once school starts? For example do you recommend e-books or two sets of books (one for home, one for school)?
I did a very big study in California where the state offered two sets of books at several schools. But the back pain and the distribution of weight was equal to both with or without that concept because nobody enforced it. So if you are going to have two sets of books, you need to make sure that you are enforcing it because the kids will still bring the books back and forth regardless. So they really need to make sure they are actually leaving one set at home and using one set at school, which I think is a great idea when enforced.
Another problem with a lot of kids is that it is not necessarily the heavy textbooks making the bags so weighted, but it is the big heavy folders. Unfortunately folders get so big and cumbersome that they add a lot of weight problems, so make sure to go through the child’s folders so they aren’t carrying around papers they don’t need that create such a heavy bag. In the study that I did, I found that 30 percent of the materials, or 30 percent of the weight of the backpack was not even educationally related. So you need to go over what the child needs on different days in school and make sure that they only carry what they need.
Obviously no child is going to love it when their mom or dad goes through their backpack, so if you tell them that you’re going to check it periodically then they may be more inclined to stop carrying more than just educational material.
Are there any signs a parent should look for that might indicate that their backpack is unsafe?
I think if the child is clearly either having pain or you can clearly see that while he is walking it is quite cumbersome– while he is walking he is stooped or the way he is walking is changed, that is a sign. A backpack should not change the way you walk, that is a sign that the weight distribution or the weight itself is effecting him, which is detrimental to the neck, back and shoulders. So the way the child walks and carries the backpack are important.
If there is a sigh of relief when the child takes off the backpack, that is another important sign. If there is significant relief of discomfort and it is audible when they drop the backpack to the ground, that is an issue. There shouldn’t be this much of a relief to take the backpack off and that shows that it is an issue to start with.
How high should a backpack sit on the back, and is one strap okay?
I think wearing on both and above the waist is important. Below the waist is just pulling them to the ground.
Two straps are better than one. It is not essential, but two are better than one overall because it helps keep the backpack closer to the child’s back and distributes the weight a lot more evenly.
Is there anything else you would like to add about backpack safety?
It is a serious issue that is overlooked initially, but just because these are young kids doesn’t mean that they can’t have the same kind of back issues that we as adults do. The concern is that we are not sure how back pain or discomfort now will relate to when they are older.
Backpack safety needs to involve parents and school. It all starts with the parents making sure that the child wears the backpack safely and helping the child figure out when they can get to a locker and what equipment they need for which day. At school, teachers need to make sure that kids have ways around carrying all of their books to every class. I have also found that carpooling helps because the less time you are worrying about carrying a backpack, the better the results are. If you don’t have to walk to and from school with the backpack, you have less paint and discomfort.
Just make sure to pay attention to the child when they have their backpack on and remember that their back pain is just as real as an adult’s.
Check out this video from Dr. Siambanes about backpack safety before heading to the store.