From among the many goofy memories that I have of my childhood, one remains crystal clear. It isn’t so much due to the impact of that moment but more so because I see reruns of what had happened year after year as my children pick up their heavy backpacks as they go back to school! I was in grade 3, it was the first day of school. I had packed in all my new books. With a bit of difficulty I mounted the large bag over my tiny shoulders, opened the door and rush to the steps that led to the gate. One foot up and before the other one could stabilize my gait I fell backwards on my bag. As mum picked me holding back her giggles, I was reduced to tears. Then on, I would practice climbing stairs with my new year’s bag on – one night before the first day of school! Well of course, my children haven’t ever fallen on their backs but yes, their bags are just as heavy and I think this is every parent’s nightmare.
Samar Satamain, mother of two agrees, “If I chance to ever pick up their bags when they are walking from the bus to home, it’s just too heavy. I can’t. I wonder how the young ones manage. The school that my children go to has a locker system but that is only for grade 6 onwards, the little ones need to lug around the weight on their frail shoulders and there are often complains of back pain and fatigue. Something needs to be done!”
Dr Matthias Honl, Specialist Orthopaedic Surgeon at the Neuro Spinal Hospital in Dubai recalled, “When we were growing up times were simpler and little if any thought was given to ergonomics, repetitive strain injuries and the like. Naive? Uninformed? Perhaps. But times have changed. Computers. Wireless. MP3s. Gaming. The list of technologies goes on and on. You would think this shift to ‘virtual’ content results in kids carrying less to and from school – that is definitely not the case. It is disturbing to find children carrying backpacks heavier than the recommended weight limit, particularly given the
vulnerability of their musculoskeletal systems during these growing years.”
Dr Honl has been practising for more than 25 years, paediatric cases are of special interest to him. He marks that in the last five years he has seen more children complaining of back pain than in all the previous years of his experience. “Children these days lead a very sedentary lifestyle,” he says. “In times of online gaming, the concept of playing outdoors is lost. Physical activity leads to stronger bones, muscles and ligaments. When the body develops properly it is more capable. It’s sad that a growing child is either glued to the television or laptop. Long hours on the couch result in weak muscles and bones. A child with a weaker musculoskeletal system will be less able to adapt to the heavy weight backpacks.
“Injury can occur when a child, in trying to adapt to a heavy load, uses harmful postures such as arching the back, leaning forward or, if only one strap is used, leaning to one side,” Dr Honl explains. “These postural adaptations can cause spinal compression and/or improper alignment, and may hamper the proper functioning of the disks between the vertebrae that provide shock absorption. A too-heavy load also causes muscles and soft tissues of the back to work harder, leading to strain and fatigue. This leaves the back more vulnerable to injury. A heavy load may also cause stress or compression to the shoulders and arms. When nerves are compressed, the child may experience tingling or numbness in the arms,” he adds.
Here are a important pointers parents must not ignore:
1) Make the right choice
Parents must monitor their children and ensure that they use their bags correctly. “First and foremost, choose the proper size bag for your child. This would be approximately the space between your child’s shoulder blades and waist. A disproportionately large bag will result in carrying too many unnecessary books, toys, and so on, while a too small bag will result in your child carrying too many objects in their hands, thus causing even greater balance and postural problems.”
“A loaded backpack should not exceed 15 percent of your child’s body weight. If a backpack is too heavy, the child will need to lean forward to carry the bag or balance himself. This can cause bad posture and spinal strain.”
Teach your child how to pack his or her bag, rather than simply shove belongings inside without any regard for safety. Guide your child and help make a list of what is needed throughout each day to limit the amount of unnecessary cargo. “Pack the heaviest books nearest your back and the lightest books farthest away from your back. This will help avoid an excessive lean backward and help prevent tipping over. Also of concern are sharp objects such as scissors. These items should be kept in a special place, such as a small box or bag, designed to avoid harm.”
2) Model proper lifting habits
Teach children backpack safety at an early age, many childhood injuries and spinal conditions can be avoided. “Use both hands to lift the bag up. Use the leg muscles to stand up and carry the load. It is important to have your children realize that their leg muscles are infinitely stronger and less prone to injury than the lower back muscles, which most people erroneously use to lift objects. Any quick turning or twisting should also always be avoided when lifting anything.”
3) Wear it properly
The last step to proper backpack safety is wearing the bag in a manner that distributes its weight equally. Primarily, this means always using well-cushioned arm straps—all the time and without exception. While it may be more fashionable for your child to wear the bag hanging off one shoulder, this practice should always be avoided. Using only one strap, even with backpacks that have one strap that runs across the body, causes one shoulder to bear the weight of the bag. By wearing both shoulder straps, the weight of the pack is better distributed, and a symmetrical posture is promoted. A backpack that has padded, contoured shoulder straps will also help reduce pressure on the chest and shoulders.
4) Make sure the backpack fits.
It is important to pay close attention to the way a backpack is positioned on the back, and the size of the backpack should match the size of the child. Shoulder straps should fit comfortably on the shoulder and under the arms, so that the arms can move freely. The bottom of the pack should rest in the contour of the lower back. The pack should “sit” evenly in the middle of the back, not “sag down” toward the buttocks. A backpack with the waist strap option is a better buy, it provides more support to the child.
“I typically do not recommend suitcase-style backpacks that are on rollers. These bags become very cumbersome when anyone has to carry them up flights of stairs, and a child is made to twist and torque the spine to pull the bag along. The only benefit of this type of bag is that on flat surfaces, the wheels cause the weight of the bag to become almost negligent,” says Dr Honl.
5) Be Aware
Simple education and demonstrating the proper way to use and wear backpacks can have a
huge impact on the health and vitality of your school-aged children. Not only is it important to
teach our children the content in the books they carry, but also how to safely transport their
materials between school and home each day. If you suspect that your child may have some underlying condition, such as scoliosis, or his or her posture has been getting progressively worse, first look to your child’s backpack-wearing habits. The next step should be a visit to your chiropractor for a full evaluation. Early intervention and proper care can save a young child a lifetime of pain, discomfort, lack of self-esteem, and ill health.