August is a wonderful month here in Michigan, and it has long served as a “buffer” between the summer and the beginning of the school year for my own family. But, with each passing year, August seems to get shorter, and shorter, and shorter…
Ah yes – believe it or not – summer is truly fleeting, and while some of the pre-season sports camps, tryouts, and practices are already in the works, we can bank on the fact that classes are soon to be back in session before we parents can blink.
With the fall sports season about to be in full swing as well, this time of year certainly gives me a plethora of sports medicine topics to talk about. But just for once, I’m actually going to focus on the academic end of things. Not everybody plays sports, but pretty much everyone carries a backpack…
And now it’s time to go shopping (instead of running, jumping, hitting, or tackling) if you truly want to stay ahead of the game.
If you have chosen a backpack for your kids and need some tips, or if you are in the process of choosing a new backpack and need some guidance, this column might come in very handy.
Now, I must admit – from an orthopedic surgeon’s standpoint – a column about backpack safety is not as “glamorous” as topics like blown out knees and torn up shoulders, but backpack safety has actually become a pretty hot topic. That’s really not surprising given the fact that most of our “kids” lug their schoolbooks and supplies around in backpacks. From a sports medicine standpoint, a backpack is not going to cause the same kind of injury that might occur on a football field. Nonetheless, I see plenty of young patients who have issues related to backpacks that are being worn improperly or are just simply too heavy.
When used correctly, backpacks can be an excellent way to carry the necessities of the school day. They are designed to distribute the weight of the load among some of the body’s strongest muscles – called the core muscles. Generally speaking, backpacks are a great way for our kids to tote their stuff around school and town.
However, when backpacks are worn improperly, they can cause neck, shoulder, and back problems, as well as posture issues. When I see some of these little kids lugging around big heavy backpacks – especially when they are carrying the pack the wrong way – I worry that this could be a setup for problems that could persist into adulthood. As with any overuse injury, too much of something, especially when done the wrong way, can lead to inflammation, pain, and even chronic issues.
To decrease the risks of neck, back, and shoulder pain due to backpacks that are used improperly, the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons gives the following recommendations:
When choosing a backpack for your child, look for the following:
- Wide, padded shoulder straps. Narrow straps can dig into shoulders. This can cause pain and restrict circulation.
- Two shoulder straps. Backpacks with one shoulder strap that runs across the body cannot distribute weight evenly.
- Padded back. A padded back protects against sharp edges on objects inside the pack and increases comfort.
- Waist strap. A waist strap can distribute the weight of a heavy load more evenly.
- Lightweight backpack. The backpack itself should not add much weight to the load. Some of today’s backpacks have so many “bells and whistles” attached that they become too heavy to be effective.
When wearing a backpack, your child should:
- Always use both shoulder straps. Slinging a backpack over one shoulder can strain muscles.
- Tighten the straps so that the pack is close to the body. The straps should hold the pack two inches above the waist.
- Pack light. The backpack should never weigh more than 20% of the student’s total body weight.
- Pack heavier items closest to the center of the back.
- Stop often at school lockers and remove items you don’t need, if possible. Do not carry all of the books needed for the day.
- When you bend down, do so using both knees. Do not bend over at the waist when wearing or lifting a heavy backpack.
- Learn back-strengthening exercises to build up the muscles used to carry a backpack.
- Consider a rolling backpack. This type of backpack may be a good choice for students who must tote a heavy load. Remember that rolling backpacks must be carried up stairs.
And here are a couple extra tips:
- Encourage your child or teenager to tell you about pain or discomfort that may be caused by a heavy backpack. Don’t ignore back or neck pain in a child or teenager.
- Be sure the school allows students to stop at their lockers throughout the day.
- Consider buying a second set of textbooks for your student to keep at home.
Technology will likely continue to lessen “the load” on your child’s back in the future. Let’s face it – books and backpacks might very well be replaced over the next decade by Google Glasses or Apple Watches. In the meantime, follow the simple advice above, and don’t forget – have a great school year!
Dr. Joseph Guettler is an orthopedic surgeon at UnaSource Surgery Center in Troy. He specializes in sports medicine at Michigan Orthopedic Surgeons locations throughout metro Detroit, with his primary office located in Bingham Farms. Dr. Guettler is active in teaching and research at Beaumont Hospital and Oakland University. Schedule a consultation with Dr. Guettler through the Michigan Orthopedic Surgeons website or through his page on the UnaSource Surgery Center website.