The Therapist Is In...Student health: Backpack safety

The Therapist Is In...
Student health: Backpack safety
by Shannon Murphy, MPT

As summer winds down and students prepare for a fresh start, now is the time to establish good habits for the school year. All the usual advice applies - eat a nutritious breakfast, get plenty of sleep, pay attention in class, and get homework done early. But there are a number of things that parents and students need to consider about the physical demands of education, as well.
Although electronic readers will probably replace textbooks in the future, heavy tomes are still the reality for most schoolchildren in 2011. Unfortunately the weight of all that knowledge can compress the spine, fatigue muscles, and set the stage for a lifetime of problems. Symptoms like neck, back & shoulder pain are signs of a musculoskeletal system in trouble. Research shows that people who develop back pain as children are the same ones who struggle with back pain as adults. Protecting children from excessive loads and encouraging good postural habits at an early age are key to a healthy future.
Choosing a Safe Backpack
When shopping for backpacks, look for models that have:
* Intelligent design--the bag should be lightweight, sturdy, and organized to accommodate both large books and smaller items
* Wide straps, with separate attachment points at the top of the bag (vs fused attachment or ropey straps). A belt strap is helpful in transferring weight away from the shoulders
* Good padding at points of body contact
* Appropriate dimensions for the wearer - adult packs are too tall for younger students. The length should only cover about 75% of the spine.
'Travel' Tips
* Pack heavy books in the back, lighter in the front.
* Use both shoulder straps (just do it!) if walking more than a few feet
* Use belt straps for heavy loads or longer distances (e.g. walking to/from school)
* If needed, carry part of the load in your arms, keeping items close to the body
* Take breaks - put the pack down when waiting (e.g. for the bus, parents, etc)
How Much is Too Much?
Leaning forward to balance, falling backward when upright, or complaining of pain are signs that a bag is too heavy. Remember - children vary significantly in shapes and sizes, so loads are handled differently among peers. The weight of a loaded backpack should never exceed 10-15% of a child's (defined as < 18 yrs old) body weight. (5-8 lbs for a 50-lb child // 10-15 lbs for a 100-lb child...) Although these guidelines predominantly affect elementary & middle-school students, smaller high-schoolers need to take heed as well.
Know Your Options
Making frequent trips to lockers or leaving certain items at home can reduce the transportation load between classes. Rolling luggage bags offer an alternative to packs and reduce spinal loading (select styles with swivel casters and easily retracted handles). Although logical, these options sometimes conflict with school policies. Talk to teachers and administrators if it becomes a problem - the medical community is on your side and can work with school officials find a solution.
Lastly - exercise! Regular physical activity is critical in developing bones and muscles that resist injury. Developing a healthy body early in life can prevent years of misery down the road.

This series of columns are by Shannon Murphy, MPT, Owner/Director of BodySense PT. 9 Saint Paul St, 3rd Floor, Boonsboro, MD 21713. 301-432-8585 phone, 301-432-1987 fax,