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Backpack Misuse & Chronic Back Pain

Back pain is pervasive among American adults, but a new and disturbing trend is emerging. Young children are suffering from back pain much earlier than previous generations, and the use of overweight backpacks is a contributing factor, according to the American Chiropractic Association (ACA). In fact, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the use of book bags or back carriers resulted in over 6,500 injuries in 2000 alone.

Over the past 10 years, the chiropractic profession is noticing a marked increase in the number of young children who are complaining about back, neck and shoulder pain. This new back pain trend among youngsters isn't surprising when you consider the disproportionate amounts of weight they carry in their backpacks— often slung over just one shoulder. A 2002 study conducted in Italy found that the average child carries a backpack that would be the equivalent of a 39-pound burden for a 176-pound man, or a 29-pound load for a 132-pound woman. Of those children carrying heavy backpacks to school, 60 percent had experienced back pain as a result.

Other studies have shown that slinging a backpack over one shoulder could exacerbate the curvature of the spine in scoliosis patients.

According to the ACA, preliminary results of studies being conducted show that the longer a child wears a backpack, the longer it takes for a curvature or deformity of the spine to correct itself. The question that needs to be addressed next is, Does it ever return to normal?

The results of these types of studies are especially important as more and more school districts— many of them in urban areas— remove lockers from the premises, forcing students to carry their books with them all day long.

What Can You Do?

  • Make sure your child's backpack weighs no more than 5 to 10 percent of his or her body weight. A heavier backpack will cause your child to bend forward in an attempt to support the weight on his or her back, rather than on the shoulders, by the straps.
  • The backpack should never hang more than four inches below the waistline. A backpack that hangs too low increases the weight on the shoulders, causing your child to lean forward when walking.
  • A backpack with individualized compartments helps in positioning the contents most effectively. Make sure that pointy or bulky objects are packed away from the area that will rest on your child's back.
  • Bigger is not necessarily better. The more room there is in a backpack, the more your child will carry— and the heavier the backpack will be.
  • Urge your child to wear both shoulder straps. Lugging the backpack around by one strap can cause the disproportionate shift of weight to one side, leading to neck and muscle spasms, as well as low-back pain.
  • Wide, padded straps are very important. Non-padded straps are uncomfortable, and can dig into your child's shoulders.
  • The shoulder straps should be adjustable so the backpack can be fitted to your child's body. Straps that are too loose can cause the backpack to dangle uncomfortably and cause spinal misalignment and pain.
  • If the backpack is still too heavy, talk to your child's teacher. Ask if your child could leave the heaviest books at school, and bring home only lighter hand-out materials or workbooks.

What We Can Do for You...

If you or your child experiences any pain or discomfort resulting from backpack use, call your doctor of chiropractic. Doctors of chiropractic are licensed and trained to diagnose and treat patients of all ages and will use a gentler type of treatment for children. In addition, doctors of chiropractic can also prescribe exercises designed to help children develop strong muscles, along with instruction in good nutrition, posture and sleeping habits.

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