Rethinking Backpack Safety

While it may feel like school let out for summer just weeks ago, many parents are already gearing up for back-to-school shopping and looking for sales on everything from new school supplies to the season’s hottest sneakers. Kids will definitely have opinions about their favorite colors and trends, but parents should also be thinking of safety, especially when it comes to backpacks.

Choosing the right backpack shouldn’t just be about helping your child show off his or her personal style; it should also serve as an easy way to lighten the load of heavy textbooks, folders and devices.

Michael Catino, M.D., a spinal surgeon and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Denton and North Texas Neck and Back, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice, says parents can follow a few simple tips to help their children avoid potential health issues.

“Be sure that you obtain a backpack that fits well and is age-appropriate,” he says. “Remember, the bigger the backpack, the more the child will want to put in it, resulting in possible injury. Regularly carrying a heavy backpack can result in muscular strain, postural issues and potentially a more chronic back pain condition.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) notes that backpacks are the most efficient and healthiest way for school-aged students to carry their school supplies and personal items, as they distribute the weight among some of the body’s strongest muscles. Therefore, the AAP recommends lightweight, padded backpacks with two wide straps, as cross-body styles and messenger bags don’t distribute the load as well.

Overloaded backpacks can cause back, neck and shoulder pain and poor posture, which can be especially troubling in still-growing young bodies, according to the National Safety Council (NSC). And while it may be tempting to load up their backpacks with every book, binder and tablet they’ll need throughout the day, experts say it’s best to keep backpacks as light as possible.

The NSC provides suggestions to help students and parents select the right backpack, by looking for bags that fit the following criteria:

  • Correct sizing (never longer than a child’s torso or hanging more than four inches below the waist)
  • Adjustable, padded back and shoulder straps
  • Hip and chest belts to help transfer weight across the hips and upper body
  • Multiple compartments to better distribute contents and weight
  • Compression straps on the sides or bottom to stabilize contents
  • Reflective material

Parents may want to avoid backpacks made of leather or those with wheels due to the added weight of the bag, as well as the fact that wheels create a tripping hazard in busy school hallways. In addition, stay away from cinch/drawstring bags because they don’t provide much shoulder support, as well as messenger bags, which put all of the bag’s weight on one shoulder.

Parents should be aware that backpacks come under recall from time to time, due to faulty construction and/or the use of unsafe materials. Sign up for monthly notices from Safe Kids about recalls on child-related products, or search for your child’s specific backpack on the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission or Consumer Affairs websites.

Once you’ve got the right backpack, it’s just as important to use it properly. The AAP offers the following tips to help students correctly use their backpacks:

  • Always use both shoulder straps. Slinging a backpack over one shoulder can strain muscles, while wearing a backpack on one shoulder may increase the curvature of the spine.
  • Tighten the straps so the pack is close to the body, ideally two inches above the waist.
  • Organize the backpack to use all its compartments. Pack heavier items closest to the center of the back.
  • Stop often at school lockers. If at all possible, do not carry all books needed for the day at one time.
  • Bend 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.

Parents play a big role in making sure their students aren’t using their backpacks incorrectly or carrying too much weight. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons suggests that parents encourage kids to not ignore back pain, and to speak up if they are experiencing any discomfort, numbness or tingling in the arms or legs, as this could indicate poor fit or a load that is too heavy. If putting on or taking off a backpack seems like a struggle for your child, see if you can help them lighten the load by making more frequent trips to their locker throughout the day and/or leaving unnecessary items at home.

If your child experiences a back-related emergency and needs medical attention, find your nearest Texas Health emergency department by visiting TexasHealth.org/locations.

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