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We all want our children to do well in school. We make sure they bring home their books and do their homework at night. We make sure they have their books packed away in their backpacks and ready to be taken to classes the next day. However, what we may be overlooking is a threat to our children’s spine more sinister than any fall off the swing set. The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated more than 12,700 children ages 5-14 had been treated for injuries related to book bags.

Recently scientists have begun to examine the effects of carrying heavy backpacks full of books. What they have discovered is that carrying heavy backpacks may pose a serious threat to your child’s spinal development. A team of researchers at Auburn University has studied 421 students and found that backpacks carried with one-strap promoted lateral spinal bending and shoulder elevation. Additionally, they noted carrying a backpack promoted a significant forward lean of the head and trunk.

The scientists state the average backpack represented 17% of the child’s body weight and significantly alters the posture and gait of the youth. If we apply this standard to adults, it would be the equivalent of the average 150-pound adult carrying a 26-pound backpack. This would explain why students suffer muscle soreness, back pain, numbness, headaches and shoulder pain. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons reported 70% of orthopedists polled also reported similar findings. Orthopedists are of the opinion that continual exposure to carrying weighted loads can promote damage accredited to the imposed postural problems caused by carrying the loads.

The authors of the Auburn study also state that the effects of weight bearing induced stress is a serious issue when considering children and youths who are experiencing physical growth and motor development. The American Academy of Pediatrics says, "There is a growing concern that youngsters may have long term back problems from trudging about with such heavy loads. It typically puts them off balance and gives them a posture that promotes low back pain. A lot of kids don't suffer it immediately, but over the long run they might."

Doctors of chiropractic have long emphasized the importance of posture and other lifestyle factors in the body's ability to function optimally. If your child does use backpacks to carry books, there are things you can do to reduce the physical stress associated with carrying backpacks.

  1. Make sure that the weight of the book bag does not exceed more than 10% of the child’s total body weight. This is especially important for children in grades 1-4. A canvas bag is lighter than leather.

  2. Avoid using backpacks or athletic bags that have only one strap, narrow straps, which can cause neck or shoulder pain, numbness, tingling or circulatory problems. “S” shaped straps are best to conform to the body.

  3. Ensure that children wear both straps on their shoulder’s to distribute weight evenly. This will significantly reduce book bag carrying stresses. Using one strap can lead to curving of the spine, lower or upper back pain, shoulder/neck pain or scoliosis (which teenage girls are most susceptible). Some bags even come with wheels.

  4. Find a backpack with a waist strap to keep the load close to the body will lessen back strain and help maintain proper balance. Some come with a built in lumbar pillow or support.

  5. Have your child examined regularly by a chiropractor or qualified health care provider, so that any potential spinal, or postural, problems can be addressed and corrected at an early age.

It is important to remember that children and adolescent youths need backpack limitations that are sensitive to their age, weight, stage of spinal development, growth pattern and fitness level. Only by exercising prudent care can we safeguard our children’s health.