Backpacks may cause pain and possible future spinal problems in children

It is time for a new school term and a moment to reflect on how your child or teenager may be suffering under the weight of too many books in their backpack.

Unfortunately, back pain among young children due to overweight backpacks is a rising trend. Therefore, it’s important to take care with the proper fit, correct size and to educate against using the straps too long. All too often, adults do not treat the complaints of discomfort from youngsters as seriously as they should.  What they carry in their backpacks is usually a contributing factor that could lead to back, neck and shoulder pain.

Even the U.S.A. Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that backpack related injuries sent more than 7,000 people to the emergency room in 2001 alone.

A recent piece of research using upright MRI scanning of the lumbar spine of 11 to 13 year old boys and girls, showed that the heavier the load, the more pain was reported. Even more worrying was the compression of the lumbar vertebrae and the lumbar asymmetry seen on the MRI scans. Asymmetry is the distortion of the pelvis and spine, which could theoretically lead to scoliosis and pelvic dysfunction in the future. The study was done using 5, 8 and 12 kilogram loads, representing from 10% to 30% of the child’s body weight, very commonly seen among Dubai school children. The research was conducted by medical doctors in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of California and published in Spine in January 2010.

Many of the problems associated with backpacks can be prevented by ensuring the correct fit, size and weight for your child. As chiropractors, we advise parents about the correct weight for your particular child and check for any deviation from normal spinal function.

The chiropractors and physical therapists of Chiropractic Dubai have checked the spines of over 1000 school children in Dubai schools and the results are quite worrying. Comparing the secondary children with the junior school children, more postural abnormalities were present. Forward head posture and scoliosis were more prevalent in the secondary group of children. As we all know, the quantity of books that a child carries usually rises as they start secondary school just when the rapid changes of puberty are underway. Scoliosis was more often seen in girls than boys in all age groups. Many factors may influence the development of scoliosis including genetic influences, however since the mediating factors are not yet fully understood, it is prudent to prevent any excess stress on the spine of a growing child.

There is a clear trend here that of the pupils checked between the age of 6 and 10 years old, the majority showing early signs of scoliosis were girls. 44 of the 448 checked were girls showing signs while only 14 were boys. 390 students showed no signs of scoliosis developing.

Again there is a clear trend for the older pupils aged 11-16 years of age that the majority of those checked showing signs of scoliosis development are girls. 44 of the 163 checked at this age group showing signs of scoliosis were female while only 14 were male. 110 Showed no signs of scoliosis developing.

Research has shown that backpacks even with small loads affect the lumbar discs of children adversely. In the years of growth, during puberty and childhood when good postural habits are developing, it is essential that we prevent our children from inadvertently getting repetitive strain injury from regular bad use of backpacks and school furniture. Spinal assessment and chiropractic treatments may help prevent your child from developing chronic pain issues especially if they already have a problem.

Backpack safety rules

  1. Limit the backpack’s weight to no more than 5 to 10 percent of the child’s body weight. Any backpack will cause the child to bend forward in an attempt to support the weight on his or her back. The heavier it is the more the head and upper body bends forward. A 50-pound child should not carry more than 5 pounds, for example.
  2. 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 hang down and cause even more spinal misalignment and pain.
    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 even more when walking. This “longer straps fashion” has become popular recently among teenagers who think it is un-cool to carry the pack where it is designed to be.
  3. The more room there is in a backpack, the more your child will carry and the heavier the backpack will be. Smaller backpacks should be the preference. Schools should be encouraged to have lockers where most books can be kept at school.
  4. Urge your child to wear both shoulder straps. Dragging the backpack around by one strap can cause a shift of weight to one side, leading to neck and muscle spasms and even low back pain.
  5. Wide, padded straps are very important. Non-padded straps are uncomfortable and they can dig into your child’s shoulders causing neck and arm pain.
  6. Use backpacks on wheels or roller packs with caution. Children tend to overload these bags and then need to haul them up bus and school stairs resulting in injury.