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Backpacks Can Become a Burden on School Children’s Health

Improper use can cause chronic back, neck and shoulder pain

DAYTON, Ohio (July 22, 2014) – One of the most anticipated parts of preparing for a new school year can be picking out a new backpack. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) said that while a child’s focus might be on design and a parent’s concern might be price, the ultimate goal should be a child’s well-being.

The AAP is just one of several academic and medical societies that have issued warnings in recent years concerning children’s backpacks due to research that shows this age-old school supply can do more harm than good if not used properly. According to the American Occupational Therapy Association, over 50 percent of all students between the ages of nine and 20 suffer from chronic back pain related to the way they wear their backpacks.

In 2012, The Consumer Products Safety Commission  said 24,000 individuals of all ages were treated in emergency departments and doctor’s offices for backpack related injuries, and about 9,500 of those were children ages five to 18. Mark Ringle, MD, a primary care physician with Beavercreek Family Physicians, has seen several cases where children complain of symptoms directly caused by a backpack that was either too heavy or was being carried incorrectly.

“Kids usually have an idea of where their symptoms are coming from, but it is like playing sports: A child may hurt themselves, but they are having too much fun to stop. They will just keep playing,” Dr. Ringle, a Premier HealthNet physician, said. “Kids may not stop an activity until the pain gets worse. They may not pay too much attention to their problems until it forces them to stop.”

Common symptoms related to backpacks include chronic pain in the back, neck or shoulders. Children may also experience symptoms related to nerve damage such as tingling in their arms or hands. A heavy backpack that isn’t secured with the proper straps can bump against the back, causing bruising. Others, such as parents or teachers, may see a child’s posture change as they are forced to lean forward to carry the load, Dr. Ringle said.

According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, children should not carry more than 15 to 20 percent of their body weight. A 50-pound child who takes the guidelines to heart would only allow their backpack to weigh five to 10 pounds; whereas a 150 pound teenager would only carry between 15 to 30 pounds, Dr. Ringle said. However, academic studies have shown that kids often go over that weight limit.

Dr. Ringle recommends parents and students follow these steps to implement backpack safety:

Start Off Well – Make sure that a child has chosen the best backpack for their size and the weight they anticipate having to carry to and from school each day. Kids also need to keep in mind the load they have to carry from class to class during the day. Children often choose a backpack that is too big for their size just because they like the style, Dr. Ringle said.

Wear it Well – The weight of a backpack should be equally distributed on a child’s back. It may seem convenient or fast to sling a backpack over one shoulder, but it can cause significant harm to the child’s back and shoulder. Many backpacks come with waist straps. Those as well as both padded shoulder straps should be used to properly balance the pack’s load.

Pack it Well – “No one plans what they should put in their backpack, but they probably should,” Dr. Ringle said. “Just like when you plan what you will put into your luggage when you go on a trip.” A child should be taught how to properly pack a backpack with heavier items placed to the back and center of the pack. Students should also know that just because they have a large backpack doesn’t mean it has to be filled to capacity. Often times, reference items only used at school can be taken out and left in a locker before heading home. Meanwhile, students need to keep in mind that a backpack should be a tool, not a burden. And parents need to realize the role they play in keeping their child safe.

“It’s like everything else: It’s an issue that begins at home,” Dr. Ringle said. “Parents should have input on the choice of the pack, how it is being used and when it is being used. Parents need to pay attention to that because more often than not, kids won’t.”

For more information on backpack safety or to find a Premier HealthNet physician near you, visit www.premierhealthnet.com/doctor.

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