Backpacks do much more than carry students’ books when they return to school each year.
Elementary school children hang key chains from their zippers to express themselves. Teenagers press patches with band names onto the fabric. In the ’90s, the Jansport logo on your pack made you cool, and no kid would have dreamed of using more than one strap.
But aside from providing yet another avenue for adolescent identity, backpacks, weighed down with piles of heavy textbooks, may also be causing poor posture and back pain in children.
"We know that back pain is on the rise," said Dr. Scott Bautch, a spokesperson for the American Chiropractic Association who has conducted various research studies on back pain in children. "By the age of 14, many children are having back pain that affects their daily lives."
This fact can be attributed to many of the modern behaviors of young people, explained Luke Bongiorno, a Manhattan-based physical therapist and managing director of NY SportsMed & Physical Therapy. These include hours spent sitting in front of computers and the rounded posture associated with texting.
"Everything else is compounding the problem," said Bongiorno, "so it’s even more important to pay attention to backpacks now."
Researchers have known for years that too much weight in backpacks could cause issues in children, and the mechanics are fairly simple. When a lot of weight is placed in a backpack, especially if it hangs below the waist, the body is placed under a certain amount of stress.
Muscles tell the brain that they’re stressed and the brain responds by telling other muscles in the spine and shoulders to work harder. "All the messages are saying, ‘We’ve got to protect, cramp down, tighten,’" said Bongiorno, so the muscles tighten, causing compression of the spine.
Because of the strain on the lower back, the body pulls the shoulders forward to keep itself upright, causing bad posture, added Dr. Joseph Herrera, director of sports medicine in the Department of Rehabilitation and Physical Medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center. And while bad posture is not deadly, it can cause serious pain and imbalances in the body and may even lead to longer-term issues, like chronic tendonitis, said Bongiorno.
Thankfully, most of the time the issues are reversible and the pain can be temporary if the problem is recognized and postural habits are corrected.
"Kids are really resilient," said Herrera, "and the body has a tendency to heal itself." The longer the problem goes on, though, the harder it is to reverse.
Rather than wait for issues to develop, there are plenty of ways to prevent damage caused by heavy backpacks.
One obvious solution is to limit the amount of weight in the backpack. The American Chiropractic Association suggests on its website that a backpack should be no heavier than 5-10 percent of a child’s body weight. Choosing a smaller backpack is an easy way to limit weight.
Children should always carry their backpacks with the straps on both shoulders, as using one strap will cause an imbalance in the muscles, further affecting posture.
Most experts agree, however, that the most important step is choosing a better backpack. Last year, Bautch worked with The North Face to develop models that would reduce strain on the body.
Some of the features he says are key to preventing back issues are: comfortable straps that are anatomically adapted for males and females, a good fit against the back (the contact point) and the presence of compartments that force children to pack their backpacks efficiently, with the heaviest items closer to the body.
Bautch, Bongiorno and Herrera all stressed the importance of waist straps, but lamented the fact that it’s nearly impossible to get kids to actually wear them.
"We have to find a way to make waist straps cool," said Bongiorno.
Bautch agreed, and said that while he has trouble getting even his own children to wear them, the key may be teaching kids the correct way to wear backpacks as early as possible.
"Most of our postural habits are learned between 4 and 7," he said. "That’s when we have our greatest learning curve. Teenagers, unfortunately, aren’t amenable to correction."