The ABC’s of wearing a backpack correctly
Backpacks are not a new way to transport school materials, but recent research has shown that many students are not wearing them correctly.
That can lead to back problems.
"Just because we can carry it, doesn't mean we should carry it," said Stephanie Hebert, Tonganoxie Elementary School nurse. She said backpacks are not always too heavy, but they often are worn incorrectly.
Backpacks should be worn on both shoulders and should not exceed 15 percent of a child's weight, according to Bonnie Swafford, manager of clinical physical therapy at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan.
"I think they need to get a very good backpack with padded straps and wear it over both shoulders," Swafford said.
The new rolling backpacks may not be the best solution to the problem, Swafford said. The handles are not ergonomically designed. Therefore, the shoulder must be rotated at an awkward and uncomfortable angle to pull it. If the school has stairs, it is bad on a child's back to pull a heavy bag up them.
Hebert said that it is important for parents to ensure the contents of their child's backpack are not too heavy.
"Teachers are making sure students aren't taking home excessive amounts in their backpacks," she said. "Parents should do that too."
Hebert said many elementary school students like to take all their books home, but that is usually unnecessary for young children.
"Some teachers put limits on how many books they can take home," she said.
Swafford recommends parents question their children about back or shoulder pain and look for telltale signs such as red marks on their shoulders or a tingling sensation in their arms when the straps are too tight.
"If you only carry one strap, you start to get curvature of the spine, so it's very important that you get straps over both shoulders," Swafford said about the short-term repercussions.
The long-term consequences include a curved back with the head jutted forward and postural changes that can cause pain, particularly if the child is not physically active, according to Swafford.
"I think that people just put up with the pain," she said. "Pain is not a normal part of life."
It is important to always practice good posture, such as tight stomach muscles, shoulders back and in line with hips and ears over the shoulders.
Swafford said that by practicing good posture early in life, pain can be completely avoided later.
If a backpack is used incorrectly for a long period of time, a physical therapy evaluation could be necessary, she said.
"A thorough assessment of posture, weak muscles and tight muscles would be performed, followed by an individualized home exercise program," Swafford said. "This will be very effective if the person is regular about doing their exercises. Once the problem goes away, then basic fitness and good posture habits are all that should be necessary."
As a solution to heavy backpacks, Swafford suggests dividing the books between a backpack and the arms to balance the weight. She also recommends students make frequent trips to their lockers.
Despite the problems with backpacks, they're not all bad, Hebert said.
"They're a good thing," she said. "They get the papers home. Hopefully, anyway."