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School's in Session: Is Your Child's Backpack Making the Grade?

The American Physical Therapy Association Addresses the Benefits and Dangers of Backpacks
ALEXANDRIA, VA, August 4, 1999 - Big or small, brightly colored canvas or black leather, the backpack is as much a back-to-school staple as the spiral, bound notebook. While a backpack is still one of the best ways to bear a burden, a too-heavy or improperly worn backpack may harm joints and muscles, especially young ones. In time for the season, the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) is offering some advice on how to properly wear a backpack and avoid injury.

In the hierarchy of bags, a backpack is a better way to carry life's necessities than a briefcase or shoulder bag, especially for longer periods of time. "Typically our proximal muscles, or muscles closer to the trunk of the body, are much stronger and have greater endurance than the distal muscles, those muscles farther away from the center of the body," says Jan K. Richardson, PT, Ph.D., OCS, and president of APTA. Properly worn, a backpack is supported by the strongest muscles in the body: the back and abdominal muscles, which work together to stabilize the trunk and hold our body in proper postural alignment.

"But improper backpack use can also present some real dangers, especially to young, still growing joints and muscles," Richardson adds. Here are some rules of thumb to follow.

Wear both straps. Slinging a backpack over one shoulder causes a person to lean to one side to compensate for the uneven weight, curving the spine. Over time, this can cause lower and upper back pain, strained shoulders and neck, and even functional scoliosis, or curvature of the spine. Teenage girls are especially susceptible to scoliosis.

Make sure the backpack is not too heavy. Students of all ages seem to be carrying heavier loads, often toting a full day's worth of textbooks and a change of clothing for after-school athletics or extra-curricular activities. Laptop computers are also common features in the college student's backpack. "A backpack can range anywhere from 20 to 50 pounds - more added weight than the average pregnant woman may have to carry," Richardson states. Even when worn properly with both straps, leaning forward to compensate for this extra weight can affect the natural curve in the lumbar, or lower back, region. Extra weight may cause a rounding of the shoulders and an increased curve in the thoracic, or upper back, region. As a result, the student may experience back, shoulder, and neck pain. "A good rule to follow is to carry no more than 15 to 20 percent of one's body weight," says Richardson.

Pay attention to the type of backpack. Look for backpacks with wide straps. "Narrow straps dig painfully into shoulders," Richardson says, "and our nerves are very close to the surface in our clavicle, or collarbone, region." Narrow straps can also hinder circulation, causing numbness or tingling in the arms, which over time may cause weakness in the hands. Even though the latest backpacks with one strap that runs across the body may be fashionable, they are not as functional because one shoulder continually bears the entire weight of the bag. It is also wise to consider the weight of the backpack when empty - for example, a canvas backpack will be lighter weight than leather.

So how to make sure this year's crop of students stay injury-free? Richardson says, "Have your kids use both straps and make frequent stops at their locker throughout the day to avoid carrying all their books at once, and leave non-essentials at home. Above all, urge your children to tell you if they are in pain or have discomfort before a problem becomes serious."

Getting More Information

For a free brochure on the back or scoliosis, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to APTA, "Taking Care of Your Back" and/or "Scoliosis," PO Box 37257, Washington, DC 20013.

The American Physical Therapy Association is a national professional organization representing more than 70,000 members. Its goal is to foster advancements in physical therapy practice, research, and education.

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