With summer slowly winding down and fall approaching, back-to-school time is just around the corner. For all parents making the trip with their child to the nearest office supply store, please be extra careful when choosing a back pack. From homework and tests to extracurricular activities, students already shoulder a hefty load particularly during this time of year. Thus, their backpacks should be least of their worries.

“Unfortunately however, due to either lack of awareness, or disinterest, or both, poor backpack ergonomics coupled with excessive weight content, and faulty posture, can pose a health risk to children and students of all ages including fatigue, muscle soreness, shoulder/neck/back pain, which may result in nerve root irritation and diminished strength/sensation,” said Gopal T. Raghunath, PT MS, DPT, CSCS, owner/clinic director at Buffalo Grove Physical Therapy & Sports Rehabilitation, P.C.

The American Occupational Therapy Association estimates that approximately 79 million students across the U.S. carry school backpacks. Among
these, nearly 22,000 strains, sprains, dislocations, and fractures, due to improper backpack use, were reported by medical providers in 2013, according to the U.S. Consumer Safety Commission.

“Many children stuff and lug nearly all of their books for each class in their backpacks, rather than simply carrying the essentials, and with no added support features,” said Dr. Raghunath. It’s important that the backpack contains both sternum and wait level straps to ensure even load distribution. According to The National Safety Council, most kids carry more than they should: up to a quarter of their total bodyweight.

While weight is indeed a key factor, the way backpacks are designed, worn and lifted, and can also most definitely contribute to discomfort, pain and injury in students. The good news: much of this is preventable.

Accordingly, therapists at the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) and American Occupational Association (AOTA) offer the following tips for kids, parents and teachers:

Select the Right Pack: Choose a pack that’s no larger than 75 percent of the length of your child’s back. Wide straps keep the pack from digging into the shoulders, and a padded back adds comfort and protection.

Lighten the Load: A child’s backpack at its fullest should be no heavier than 10 percent of his/her bodyweight.

Distribute the Weight: Use multiple pockets and compartments to distribute the weight of the items inside the pack. Keep the heavier items closer to your child’s back, and the lighter and sharper objects away from the back.

Lift with Your Legs & Keep a Neutral Spine: Teach your child proper lifting mechanics, which includes keeping core muscles braced tight and trunk in a neutral position, while driving with the legs. This will help minimize and/or prevent injuries and maintain a healthy spine.

Adjust & Carry: Insist your child always carry the backpack using both shoulder straps, including the sternum and waist straps. Adjust the shoulder straps so the backpack rests snugly against the back and hangs no more the 4 inches below the waist.

Watch for Warning Signals: Signs that your child’s backpack is too heavy or not fitting properly include difficulty picking up and/or putting on the pack, pain as well as tingling/numbness in the upper/lower extremities when wearing the pack, strap marks left behind the shoulders, and postural alterations while wearing the backpack.

Seek Advice from a Physical Therapist: Physical therapists are licensed clinicians trained to treat existing ailments, reduce pain and restore mobility, as well as identify dysfunctional movement patterns to help prevent injuries from occurring.

The clinical team at Buffalo Grove Physical Therapy & Sports Rehabilitation, P.C. will conduct a thorough movement screen and ergonomic assessment to help provide valuable suggestions on which backpack is most appropriate for your child to prevent injuries from occurring so he/she can start off the school year on the right foot.